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Ghost sickness

Ghost sickness is a culture-bound syndrome which some American Indian tribes believe to be caused by asociation with the dead or dying and is sometimes ascociated with witchcraft. It is considered to be a psychotic disorder of Navajo origin. Its symptoms include general weakness, loss of appetite, a feeling of suffocation, recurring nightmares, and a pervasive feeling of terror. The sickness is attributed to ghosts (chindi) or, occasionally, to witches.


The sufferer may be mildly obsessed with death or a deceased person whom they believe to be the source of their affliction. Physical symptoms can include weakness and fatigue, diminished appetite, or other digestion problems. There may be dizziness or fainting and sometimes even loss of consciousness. At times the sufferer might experience a sense of suffocation or inability to breath. Psychological symptoms may include nightmares or other sleep disturbances, anxiety, or a sense of being in danger. He or she may experience hallucinations or confusion. At some point there can be feelings of pointlessness or depression.

Cultural background

The Native American worldview (the way in which a culture interprets the world) is more cyclical in nature than the more linear worldview of most of the U.S. For mainstream America there is cause and effect. Events happen in a linear order, one after the other. But, American Indians have what the National Indian Child Welfare happyociation (NICWA) calls a relational worldview that is more cyclical in nature. It is not oriented in time but ebbs and flows in a manner that all events affect each other regardless of when the event takes place – past, present or future. With this world view in mind, ghost sickness can be more understood. If certain burial and mourning rituals are not practiced the deceased cannot be at peace on their new spiritual plane. The deceased then causes physical and mental problems for the living who in turn, by not practicing the rituals and suffering ghost sickness, cause the inability for the deceased to be at peace.

In the Creek culture, it is believed that everyone is a part of an energy called Ibofanga. This energy supposedly results from the flow between mind, body and spirit. Illness can result from this flow being disrupted. Therefore "Indian medicine is used to prevent or treat an obstruction and restore the peaceful flow of energy within a person." Purification rituals for mourning "focus on preventing unnatural or prolonged emotional and physical drain."

In 1881 there was a federal ban on some of the traditional mourning rituals practiced by the Lakota and other tribes. The grief resolution process is qualitatively different for Native Americans than for European-based cultures. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD, proposes that the loss of these rituals may have caused the Lakota to be "further predisposed to the development of pathological grief." Some manifestations of unresolved grief include: seeking visions of the spirits of deceased relatives, obsessive reminiscing about the deceased, longing for and believing in a reunion with the deceased, fantasies of reappearance of the deceased,and belief in one's ability to project oneself to the past or to the future.

Common belief among the Kwakiuti Indians of British Columbia is that a child's soul is weaker or less attached to his/her body. This makes children more vulnerable than adults to ghost sickness. The children are commonly referred to as adults in order to protect their souls and mislead the ghosts.


Ghost sickness may be brought about from the belief that the dead may try to take someone with them. "Spirits or “ghosts” may be viewed as being directly or indirectly linked to the cause of an event, accident, or illness. Both Erikson (1963) and Macgregor (1946/1975; 1970) report substantiating evidence of trauma response features including: (a) withdrawal and psychic numbing, (b) anxiety and hypervigilance, (c) guilt, (d) identification with ancestral pain and death, and (e) chronic sadness and depression.

Additional manifestations

Somatization is another manifestation of unresolved grief for Native Americans.Somatization, also known as Briquet's syndrome, is a chronic condition with numerous physical complaints most commonly involving the digestive system, the nervous system and chronic pain. Physicians are unable to find an underlying physical cause for the patients symptoms which can persists for years and can be severe enough to interfere with employment and personal relationships.

Another possible manifestation of unresolved grief for Native Americans is the high rate of suicide among some tribes. This can be seen in self-destructive behaviors brought about by the inability to process grief through traditional rituals. High suicide rates can also be a manifestation of a obsession with the dead in which the sufferer may have an unconscious wish to join their deceased loved one.


Originally posted 2017-12-18 19:23:34.

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