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Mental Illness Among Bhutanese Shamans in Nepal

van Ommeren, Mark PhD*; Komproe, Ivan PhD*; Cardeña, Etzel PhD; Thapa, Suraj B. MBBS, MPhil; Prasain, Dinesh MA; de Jong, Joop T. V. M. MD, PhD*; Sharma, Bhogendra MBBS, MSc

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: April 2004 - Volume 192 - Issue 4 - p 313-317
doi: 10.1097/01.nmd.0000122381.09491.7f
Original Articles

Despite efforts to promote traditional medicine, allopathic practitioners often look with distrust at traditional practices. Shamans in particular are often regarded with ambivalence and have been considered mentally ill people. We tested the hypothesis that shamanism is an expression of psychopathology. In the Bhutanese refugee community in Nepal, a community with a high number of shamans, we surveyed a representative community sample of 810 adults and assessed ICD-10 mental disorders through structured diagnostic interviews. Approximately 7% of male refugees and 0.5% of female refugees reported being shamans. After controlling for demographic differences, the shamans did not differ from the comparison group in terms of 12-month and lifetime ICD-10 severe depressive episode, specific phobia, persistent somatoform pain, posttraumatic stress, generalized anxiety, or dissociative disorders. This first-ever, community-based, psychiatric epidemiological survey among shamans indicated no evidence that shamanism is an expression of psychopathology. The study's finding may assist in rectifying shamans’ reputation, which has been tainted by past speculation of psychopathology.

*Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, World Health Organization Collaborating Centre, the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; †Department of Psychology and Anthropology, University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, TX; and ‡Center for Victims of Torture, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Send reprint requests to Dr. Mark van Ommeren, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, World Health Organization, Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland.

© 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.