Original Paper

Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 514-534

Explanatory Models and Mental Health Treatment: Is Vodou an Obstacle to Psychiatric Treatment in Rural Haiti?

  • Nayla M. KhouryAffiliated withEmory University School of Medicine
  • , Bonnie N. KaiserAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Emory University
  • , Hunter M. KeysAffiliated withRollins School of Public Health, Emory University
  • , Aimee-Rika T. BrewsterAffiliated withRollins School of Public Health, Emory University
  • , Brandon A. KohrtAffiliated withPsychiatric Residency Training Program, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, The George Washington University Medical Center Email author 

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Abstract

Vodou as an explanatory framework for illness has been considered an impediment to biomedical psychiatric treatment in rural Haiti by some scholars and Haitian professionals. According to this perspective, attribution of mental illness to supernatural possession drives individuals to seek care from houngan-s (Vodou priests) and other folk practitioners, rather than physicians, psychologists, or psychiatrists. This study investigates whether explanatory models of mental illness invoking supernatural causation result in care-seeking from folk practitioners and resistance to biomedical treatment. The study comprised 31 semi-structured interviews with community leaders, traditional healers, religious leaders, and biomedical providers, 10 focus group discussions with community members, community health workers, health promoters, community leaders, and church members; and four in-depth case studies of individuals exhibiting mental illness symptoms conducted in Haiti’s Central Plateau. Respondents invoked multiple explanatory models for mental illness and expressed willingness to receive treatment from both traditional and biomedical practitioners. Folk practitioners expressed a desire to collaborate with biomedical providers and often referred patients to hospitals. At the same time, respondents perceived the biomedical system as largely ineffective for treating mental health problems. Explanatory models rooted in Vodou ethnopsychology were not primary barriers to pursuing psychiatric treatment. Rather, structural factors including scarcity of treatment resources and lack of psychiatric training among health practitioners created the greatest impediments to biomedical care for mental health concerns in rural Haiti.

Keywords

Vodou Spirit possession Haiti Explanatory models Treatment-seeking behavior Mental health