henry copeland:

Non medical treatment succeeds in third world

The research showed that patients outside the United States and Europe had significantly lower relapse rates — as much as two-thirds lower in one follow-up study. These findings have been widely discussed and debated in part because of their obvious incongruity: the regions of the world with the most resources to devote to the illness — the best technology, the cutting-edge medicines and the best-financed academic and private-research institutions — had the most troubled and socially marginalized patients. Trying to unravel this mystery, the anthropologist Juli McGruder from the University of Puget Sound spent years in Zanzibar studying families of schizophrenics. Though the population is predominantly Muslim, Swahili spirit-possession beliefs are still prevalent in the archipelago and commonly evoked to explain the actions of anyone violating social norms — from a sister lashing out at her brother to someone beset by psychotic delusions. McGruder found that far from being stigmatizing, these beliefs served certain useful functions. The beliefs prescribed a variety of socially accepted interventions and ministrations that kept the ill person bound to the family and kinship group. “Muslim and Swahili spirits are not exorcised in the Christian sense of casting out demons,” McGruder determined. “Rather they are coaxed with food and goods, feted with song and dance. They are placated, settled, reduced in malfeasance.” McGruder saw this approach in many small acts of kindness. She watched family members use saffron paste to write phrases from the Koran on the rims of drinking bowls so the ill person could literally imbibe the holy words. The spirit-possession beliefs had other unexpected benefits. Critically, the story allowed the person with schizophrenia a cleaner bill of health when the illness went into remission. An ill individual enjoying a time of relative mental health could, at least temporarily, retake his or her responsibilities in the kinship group. Since the illness was seen as the work of outside forces, it was understood as an affliction for the sufferer but not as an identity.
- www.nytimes.com