Culture Health & Illness Theme Four

Culture Bound Syndrome

  • In Medicine and Medical Anthropology, a culture-specific syndrome or culture-bound syndrome is a combination of psychiatric and somatic symptoms that are considered to be a recognisable disease only within a specific society or culture
  • Refers to Mental Illness, as described in non Western Societies
  • It is said to be ''bound'' to a particular culture
  • Cultural interpretations of metal disorders & the meanings they attach to them



If we look at:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Paranoia
  • Multiple Personality
  • Stress Response
  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia

Answer is Yes they are universal as Diseases BUT how they are interpreted are different

Theoretical Positions to c.b.s

1. Exclusionist Position

  • Are believed to be different & unique
  • Can not be classified to western diseases
  • Viewed as an Illness not a Disease
  • Cultural belief attached to them

2. Inclusionist Position

  • Both Nature & nurturer (nature-culture continuum)
  • Each aspects is shaped by the other
  • No Disease is unique to a particular culture
  • All Diseases have nature & nurturer components attached to them

3. Multiaspect- inclusionist

  • All diseases are equal
  • Have Culture, Biology & Psychology attached to them
  • All diseases around the world are C.B Illnesses
  • Therefore this word C.B.S does not exist

Case Studies

Arctic Hysteria

  • First documented in the Eskimo Society in the 19th century (1892)
  • Found in the Arctic (Northern Greenland)
  • Considered to be a mental illness
  • Occurred during the dark winter months
  • Eskimos lived in small structures
  • Men and women used to come out of there homes, take of their clothes
  • Run and jump in the snow and icy water
  • In a fit of rage, run screaming and shouting
  • People from the Society goes out looking for them and bring them back before they die of Hyperthermia
  • Westerners called this Artic Hysteria
  • Interpretation
  • Winter last 6 months (confirmed to small space)
  • Frustration is high
  • Feeling Cluster phobic- need get out
  • Stress levels are high
  • Brake free
  • Stress Response

Grisi Siknis

  • Misko Indians in Central America,
  • Documented 100 years ago (found be highly contagious)
  • It affects mostly young women (starting at age 15 leading up to 60) but men can get it as well
  • Go into hysterical fit
  • They say that the devil calls to them; it hits them and even has sex with them
  • The person need to be subdued
  • They are tied down by roped and gagged, taken back to the village
  • They are taken to the traditional healer for treatment
  • With time the sickness goes away
  • It may happen more than once to a person Illness sequence
  • Shape headache and loss of appetite
  • Falls down in a state of fit
  • Thereafter wakes up and starts running
  • While running pick up things start throwing them
  • Screaming and curing at people, using strange words
  • They say person is possessed
  • She calls name of a particular boy
  • This young man is expected to go bring back her back
  • She gets tied up to calm down
  • Healer comes in and treats her with stream that contain traditional herbs, which she needs to inhale in 4 directions
  • This suppose to calm her down
  • Many young girls experience this illness
  • This can be contagious
  • If a girl is experiencing this, mothers bring their daughters in the home and locked them up, in fear of their daughters getting it
  • Sometimes it happens at big gathers were many girls collapse and act out
  • People say:
  • G.S is caused by the devil (combination of Christian & Indian Belief)
  • Swanta in Miskito culture is a short man, lives in the forest, does evil things
  • Liwa (mermaid) lives in water and seduces men, she attracts widowers & single men. If they sleep with her they have disable children & get sicknesses
  • Swanta & Liwa are demons
  • We see the Christian & Na├»ve beliefs are combined (belief in Sacrilege)
  • Rape of a girl caused by Swanta & Liwa cause of disease
  • Seen in Christian terms as God casting out the fallen angle (the devil), can to earth in the forest they known as Swanta & Liwa
  • Interpretations
  • G.S is a patterned stress response
  • Need look at historical factors
  • Miskito Indians lived on the coastlands & had contact with Christian missionaries
  • They outlawed the belief systems of the Miskito Indians
  • Forced to go into the cash economy to work to pay taxes
  • This brought added stress
  • They used Grisi Siknis TO ACT OUT AGAINST THE COLONIAL RULE. To vent their frustration
  • With women, they are expected to care for the children & take care of the household & take abuse from their husbands, GENDER OPPRESSION
  • Women can't take it anymore & need to release their anger & depression, they ACT OUT
  • Get attention from the community they use G.S as an excuse. Called Grisis Mwaia (attention seeking)
  • Young girls, they are expected be modest, dutiful, obedient & must not go out alone
  • Relationship before marriage is forbidden, marriage is arranged
  • Frustrated with this they act out, and call boy's name (her boyfriend) so they can be alone
  • They have sex with their boyfriends & say they were raped by Swanta
  • People are non judgmental, they do not blame the person but the illness, behaviour is justified
  • Conclusion
  • People have different ways of handling stress
  • C.B.S need to understood within the historical context
  • G.S is a stress response and a brake away from the norm of the society

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Western type of c.b.s= self starvation
  • Occurs mainly among young girls/women: also can affect boys/men
  • It is characterized by (symptoms)
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Refusal to maintain optimal body weight
  • Think they are fat
  • Hence it is Psychological
  • Females miss 3/4 menstrual cycle
  • Hyperactive
  • It is a Psychological disease
  • Distorted view of their bodies
  • This condition is brought upon by emotional disorders that lead a person to worry/get anxious about their physical appearance and body image


  • We are living a the technological era, consumed by media
  • Media projects beauty as people with perfect bodies
  • It was found in many western societies' girls as young as 7 are afraid of getting fat
  • Developed FAT phobia
  • People are concerned what the media projects
  • High achievers in families are supposed to a certain way, can be family pressure to b the perfect person
  • Fatness is no longer valued
  • Culture starting to change call this Cultural Change Syndrome
  • As a result of urbanization/westernization
  • Advancement in technology
  • Direct influence of the media
  • Some Religions (in particular eastern religions) promote Anorexia
  • Women are required to undertake long fasts
  • By fasting it is believed one obtains higher spirituality, this helps their husbands & children progress
  • At first it was a western disease, through globalization it as now spread across the world
  • Hence it is no longer culture bound

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