Ghost sickness

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Ghost sickness is a culture bound syndrome reported to occur among Native American tribes, including Navajo.[1] People who are preoccupied and/or consumed by the deceased are believed among some Native Americans to suffer from Ghost Sickness. Reported symptoms include general weakness, loss of appetite, suffocation feelings, recurring nightmares, and a pervasive feeling of terror. The sickness is attributed to ghosts (chindi) or, occasionally, to witches or witchcraft.[2]


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 the inability to breathe. Psychological symptoms may include nightmares or other sleep disturbances, anxiety, a sense of being in danger, hallucinations, and confusion. At some stages there can be feelings of despondency or depression.[3]

Cultural background[edit]

The Native American world-view is more cyclical in nature than the typically linear world-view of most Western societies, which view the world as cause and effect, with events happening linearly, i.e., one after the other. Native Americans have what the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) term a relational world-view that is more cyclical in nature. It is not oriented in time, but instead believes that all events affect each other, regardless of when the event occurs—past, present or future.[citation needed]

In the Muscogee (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".[4] Purification rituals for mourning "focus on preventing unnatural or prolonged emotional and physical drain.[4]

The grief resolution process is qualitatively different for Native Americans than for Western cultures. In 1881, there was a federal ban on some of the traditional mourning rituals practised by the Lakota and other tribes. Lakota expert Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart 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.[5]

A common belief among the Kwakiuti Indians of British Columbia is that a child's soul is weaker or less attached to their body than that of an adult. This would make children more vulnerable than adults to ghost sickness. In this society the children are commonly referred to as adults in order to protect their souls and mislead the ghosts.[6]


Ghost sickness is related to the belief that the dead may try to take someone with them.[unreliable source?][7] Putsch states that "Spirits or 'ghosts' may be viewed as being directly or indirectly linked to the cause of an event, accident, or illness".[8] Both Erikson and Macgregor report substantiating evidence of trauma response in ghost sickness, with features including withdrawal and psychic numbing, anxiety and hypervigilance, guilt, identification with ancestral pain and death, and chronic sadness and depression.[9][10][11]


Religious leaders within the Navajo tribe repeatedly perform rituals to eliminate the all-consuming thoughts of the dead.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ (2012, May 3). Navajo Ghost Sickness. Retrieved July 19, 2013 from Black Magus [1]
  2. ^ Hall, Lena. "Conceptions of Mental Illness: Cultural Perspectives and Treatment Implications". Nova Southeastern University. Retrieved April 1, 2013. 
  3. ^ American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., rev.). Washington, DC: Author.[page needed]
  4. ^ a b Walker, Andrea C.; Balk, David E. (2007). "Bereavement Rituals in the Muscogee Creek Tribe". Death Studies 31 (7): 633–52. doi:10.1080/07481180701405188. PMID 17849603. 
  5. ^ Brave Heart, Maria Yellow Horse (1998). "The return to the sacred path: Healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the lakota through a psychoeducational group intervention". Smith College Studies in Social Work 68 (3): 287. doi:10.1080/00377319809517532. 
  6. ^ Guiley, R.E. (1992).Ghosts and spirits.New York: Facts on File.[page needed]
  7. ^ [unreliable source?] Sanchez, D. (2012, January 20). "Navajo Ghost Sickness". Retrieved March 30, 2013 from Anthropology 204. [2]
  8. ^ Putsch, R.W. (2006-2007) Drumlummon Views, retrieved on May 22, 2008
  9. ^ Erikson, E. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. Psychological Issues, 7(1). New York: International Universities Press.
  10. ^ Macgregor, G. (1975). Warriors without weapons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1946)[page needed]
  11. ^ Macgregor, G.(1970). Changing society: The Teton Dakotas. InE. Nurge (Ed.),The modern Sioux: Social systems and reservation culture 92-106. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  12. ^ Opler, Morris E.; Bittle, William E. (Winter 1961). "The Death Practices and Eschatology of the Kiowa Apache". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17 (4): 383–94. JSTOR 3628949.