Evil spirits and medicine

Post was created on January 3rd, 2012

In India, many people believe that mental ailments are caused by bad spirits or sorcery – an explanation that is generally accepted and avoids the negative stigma associated with mental illness. Temples or shrines with reputed miraculous powers to heal people with mental ailments are well-patronised, and some of these attract hundreds of people each day. 

In 2001, a fire occurred at the highly popular Erwadi Sufi Muslim shrine. The fire killed 25 people who had been chained up in the surrounding boarding houses. Sensational media reports portrayed healing shrines as ‘backward’, and revealed that psychiatric services were in a dismal state across most of the country – with the implication that people would not visit healing shrines if psychiatric services were better. There were widespread calls for the modernisation of the mental health sector.

The Supreme Court issued directives to address conditions at healing shrines, such as banning the chaining of devotees.  These interventions were justified by the authorities as a mode of defending the human rights of people with mental illness, and as protecting them from exploitation by the operators of shrines and unlicensed ‘asylums’.

The court also directed that psychiatric services be introduced in or near healing shrines. But what is the effect when a psychiatric paradigm of illness and antipsychotic drugs are introduced into a belief system of spirit possession and exorcism? Is there a fundamental mismatch between the worldviews of the paradigms of psychiatry and religion in India? Can the relative credibility and ‘truth claims’ of scientific models such as psychiatry find any common ground with the ‘folk models’ held by patients, and their different notions of cure?

One temple in south India has had some success in incorporating religious healing and psychiatry into a culturally relevant and accessible model of healing.

Read more about my research on the Culture Matters blog

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