Hallucinations Across Cultures

Photo by KieferPix

Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor of anthropology, studied some cultural factors that seemed to influence the way people diagnosed with psychotic disorders experienced auditory hallucinations. She concluded that the way people relate to these voices may alter what the voices say.

In America, the voices were generally harsher, persecutory, and considered intrusive. In Africa and India, the voices were usually more benign, sometimes even perceived as playful, familial or spiritual.

Researchers believe this difference has to do with an individualistic versus a collectivist culture: “The Chennai (India) and Accra (Ghana) participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as signs of a violated mind.”

These studies only address one subset of a very complex illness as it shows up in a few parts of the world, but the findings suggest that by helping people discover different ways of relating to their symptoms of psychosis, the pain and disruption produced by these symptoms can reduce. 

A man named Dick Russell wrote a beautiful article for the Washington Post about his son Frank, who suffers from schizophrenia and was helped by a West African shaman. Dick writes, “In the culture of his Dagara people, schizophrenics are not viewed pathologically, but often as mediums bringing messages to the community from the spirit world.”

In conjunction with taking psychiatric medication and living in a group home, connecting with a shaman and integrating meditative rituals into his life helped Frank to become more grounded, creative, and enthusiastic about life.

I’m glad for stories of hope like this one. Lives can be transformed despite such frightening setbacks when people have access to the right support and resources (often people don’t know they need help, or where to get it…here are some laws and statistics). Healing (in whatever form that takes) happens through acceptance and community rather than by treating something within ourselves or others as problems to fix in isolation.

Click here for a list of mental health crisis and addiction helplines in Washington State.

Click here to find a support group.

Photo by STILLFX

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