Schultz and Weisaeth (2015) describe Patrick’s story, his mental health problems, and his treatment, a local cleansing ritual. They conclude that the ritual is safe, effective, and perhaps even more powerful than Western-style therapy. That sounds fascinating and important, right?
In interviews Patrick told about his experiences, including an attack on a convoy:
“Everybody was screaming…The road was all red from the blood… My body was shaking, but I managed to appear calm. If not they would have killed me. The next day I experienced the Ghost People for the first time. I could see them get chopped up and sliced apart with axes. I saw the same scenes over and over again.”
The Ghost People only showed up when Patrick was alone, and scared him enormously. He also suffered from concentration problems and sleeping difficulties. He was clinically depressed and had moderate to severe PTSD.
When his nightmares were occurring twice a week and he saw the Ghost People every day – about 8 years after the convoy attack –, he stated that his life was ruined. He wanted to do a cleansing ritual.
Fast forward to the ritual: it was a 3-day event that involved the whole village. It was led by a medicine woman. I show a few quotes to give you a sense of the ritual but I’d highly recommend reading the full description because it’s very rich in detail and well written.
“The singing continued in the constant rhythm and increasing intensity…There was a magical and hypnotic atmosphere that was gradually built up and varied in tempo and intensity. It was carefully and skilfully conducted.”
“On the second day, the black cock was held by its legs by the leader of the elders and swung three times around Patrick’s head while the leader communicated with the spirits: ‘You receive this offering in your name. Let the spirit and the blood of this bird cleanse our son so he can live with his whole soul inside him, so that he once again can live a normal life.’”
“Shortly after, the medicine woman came up behind him and stuck a spear several times into the belly of the goat. The blood pulsated out of the white goat and poured down Patrick’s bare back while the goat screamed and resisted violently. The singers screamed to the steady rhythm of the drums as the goat convulsed for a final time while its life slowly faded out and the stream of blood subsided. The spirits followed the blood, so they were then free to leave for their own spirit world.”
Over a period of two months after the ritual, the medicine woman came twice a week to ask Patrick how he was doing, and then once a month for the next 7 months. She also gave him a herbal treatment.
The frequency of severe nightmares showed a steep decline. He continued to have symptoms of depression for a while, related to the realities of living in a post-conflict area, but he gradually recovered. Eventually, he was diagnosis-free. Patrick’s mother said that she had her old son back.
Schultz and Weisaeth observe that the process followed a common therapy structure with phases of assessment and motivation, treatment, and follow-up. However, the involvement of the whole local society was in stark contrast with Western-style therapies, and possibly very effective.
The elders used their authority to instruct the villagers to welcome back Patrick once the evil spirits had left him. They made it clear that Patrick was not to blame for his actions: the rebels had abducted him and he became possessed by evil spirits. This way the elders both broke the silence surrounding the murders and removed the stigma.
There was no direct exposure to the traumatic events in the ritual, but it provided indirect exposure through the staged violent killing of the white goat, with strong sensory stimuli. Schulz and Weisaeth argue that the symbolic exposure could have the power to initiate a therapeutic response.
There is a lot more to say on the various elements of the ritual, but one of the important conclusions of the authors is that we should be more serious about engaging in equal collaborations with traditional healers in emergency settings. Both in numbers and in culture, they are much more accessible to the population than Western-trained professionals.
Schultz, J., & Weisæth, L. (2015). The power of rituals in dealing with traumatic stress symptoms: cleansing rituals for former child soldiers in Northern Uganda Mental Health, Religion & Culture DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2015.1094780
In 2015 I developed a program to help people be productive in a meaningful way. It goes for 6 weeks, is entirely online and flexible, but with some ‘whip cracking’ from my side to keep you going :-).
A new edition starts again on Monday 15 Feb. The testers were super enthusiastic about it, so I’d like to make it available widely. Would you mind sharing if you know someone who might be interested?