Original Paper

Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 380-400

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Dissociative Symptoms and Reported Trauma Among Patients with Spirit Possession and Matched Healthy Controls in Uganda

  • Marjolein van DuijlAffiliated withClinic for Refugees at Center 45Foundation Arq Psychotrauma Research Email author 
  • , Ellert NijenhuisAffiliated withTop Referent Trauma Center GGZ Drenthe
  • , Ivan H. KomproeAffiliated withHealthNet TPOFaculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Utrecht University
  • , Hajo B. P. E. GernaatAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, Diaconessenhuis
  • , Joop T. de JongAffiliated withCultural and International Psychiatry, VU UniversityDepartment of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine


Spirit possession is a common, worldwide phenomenon with dissociative features. Studies in Europe and the United States have revealed associations among psychoform and somatoform dissociation and (reported) potential traumatic events. The aim of this study was to explore the relationships among spirit possession, dissociative symptoms and reported potentially traumatizing events in Uganda. One hundred nineteen persons with spirit possession, diagnosed by traditional healers, were compared to a matched control group of 71 nonpossessed persons. Assessments included demographic items and measures of dissociation and potentially traumatizing events. Compared to the nonpossessed group, the possessed group reported more severe psychoform dissociation and somatoform dissociation and more potentially traumatizing events. The associations between these events and both types of dissociation were significant. Yet, consistent with the cultural perception of dissociative symptoms, the participants subjectively did not associate dissociative symptoms with potentially traumatizing events. In conclusion, spirit possession deserves more interest as a possible idiom of distress and a culture-specific expression of dissociation related to potential traumatizing events.


Spirit possession Traumatic experiences Idioms of distress Dissociative trance disorder Uganda