Examining the Etiology and Treatment of Mental Illness Among Vodou Priests in Northern Haiti

Cult Med Psychiatry. 2022 Jun 26;1-22. doi: 10.1007/s11013-022-09791-4. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

This study assesses the perspectives and experiences of Vodou priests (ougan) in the treatment of mental illness in northern Haiti. Our goal is to explore the etiology and popular nosologies of mental illness in the context of Haitian Vodou, through understandings of illness and misfortune which are often viewed as a result of sent spirits-or spirits sent supernaturally by others with the intent to cause harm. Using a qualitative approach, this study conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with 20 ougan living near the city of Cap-Haïtien. Interviews highlight a sample of healers with little formal training who maintain beliefs and practices that differ significantly from current biomedical models. Ougan treat mental illness through a variety of means including prayer and conjuring of spirits, leaves for teas and baths, as well as combinations of perfumes, rum, human remains, and other powdered concoctions that are either imbibed or rubbed on the skin. The primary purpose of these treatments is to expel the spirit causing harm, yet they can often result in additional harm to the patient. Findings suggest that while ougan are willing to collaborate with biomedical practitioners, significant barriers remain preventing cooperation between these two groups.

Keywords: Cultural psychiatry; Haiti; Mental health; Traditional healing; Vodou.