I have covered abnormal psychology more than once on this blog (here, here, and here) but so far I haven’t gotten to culturally bound syndromes, a very unique subset of psychiatric disorders that only occur among specific cultural groups. These disorders often confound Western medicine, as they don’t fit well into the current classification system for psychiatric disorders and they also don’t respond well to Western style treatments.
One such culture bound disorder is Grisis Siknis, which exclusively affects the Miskito people of Nicaragua. Grisis Siknis means “crazy sickness” in the Miskito language and it is a contagious sort of hysteria characterized by long periods of anxiety, dizziness, nausea, irrational anger, and profound fear. More disturbing, Grisis Siknis is characterized by bouts of frenzied, often violent activity in which the afflicted will lose consciousness and run, believing that demons are chasing them, trying to assault them physically and sexually. Oftentimes, the afflicted person will pick up a weapon–a machete, a broken bottle, a stick, or anything handy–and start striking out randomly at unseen attackers. They exhibit a hysterical strength, sometimes requiring four men to restrain them.
…oh and did I mention who these machete waving berserkers who can only be restrained by four or more burly dudes are? They’re typically teenaged girls, aged between 15 and 18. Not exactly who you had pictured, right? I also mentioned how Grisis sickness is contagious–outbreaks sometimes begin with one girl before spreading to neighboring villages and sometimes affecting hundreds of girls before receding away as quickly as it came.
So what causes a bunch of teenage girls to absolutely flip their lids and start waving machetes at people? There are two radically different schools of thought on the matter. Western psychiatry holds that the “crazy sickness” results from stresses on these girls. The Miskitos are an impoverished tribe of native people who practice a hybrid mixture of traditional animism and Christianity. Both of these systems put a strong emphasis on female purity. However, when a girl reaches late adolescence, she is also expected to be available to marry. It is thought that these conflicting expectations–to simultaneously remain pure while also being sexually available–coupled with the general stress of an impoverished life style results in a build up of psychological steam pressure, as it were, which is then vented by an outbreak of Grisis Siknis. So, the “crazy sickness” is sort of a cultural pressure valve, an acceptable way to express emotions that are otherwise inexpressible.
The Miskitos themselves take a completely different view. They take the girls at their word, believing that Grisis Siknis is caused by evil spirits or dark sorcery, and it can only be countered by equally powerful magic. Whatever your thoughts on such things are, you can’t argue with the results–Grisis Siknis sufferers do not respond at all to Western medicine, but they do respond to traditional healing methods that involve potions, herbs, steam baths, and rituals. While the latter methods aren’t magic bullets, they do eventually relieve the poor girl’s suffering. Makes you wonder if the Miskitos might not be right, eh?