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  Ethnopsychiatry refers to indigenous conceptions about mental states and mental illness in different cultures. The term itself is ambiguous, reflecting Western assumptions about the divisibility of mind from body, and notions about a particular disciplinary approach to dealing with mental illness. Mind and body can be seen as totally interconnected in the case of Voodoo death in Arnhem, Australia, where the belief in the power of a sorcerer\'s curse literally causes the person to die.

Society plays a considerable role in the definition of what we would call mental illness. It defines what is considered normal or abnormal behaviour, and labels it as either appropriate or socially unacceptable. Social factors also determine the way mental disturbances manifest themselves, and the way they are perceived and treated within a community.

In contemporary Western society, it is doctors, psychiatrists and jurists who define what is healthy, insane, or criminal. A medical ‘discipline’ has been created in both senses of the word. According to Michel Foucault (Birth of the Clinic), it is difficult to distinguish the discipline of psychiatry from the social control of individuals. Because of this ethnocentric bias, anthropological studies focused on whether religious specialists or healers, such as the shaman, could be considered ‘psychotic’ in Western psychiatric terms, because they were frequently initiated after undergoing strange out-of-body experiences. However, their skills were not directed at creating social order through the management of individuals\' deviant behaviour, but were described in a completely different idiom. (See altered states of conciousness.)

By looking at the various systems which account for, and deal with, different types of misfortune, the conceptual systems underlying indigenous approaches can be uncovered. Misfortune covers religious and ritual elements as well as therapeutic approaches dealing with it. Of course these systems are not always about therapeutics, and may also be a form of social control—as in the case of witchcraft. An African shaman among the Hehe of Tanzania, for example, treats the persons he considers disturbed by a variety of means: magical, herbal, physical or social. Conditions are recognized by their causation; through divination the shaman establishes whether the causation is due to moral wrong-doing, incest, witchcraft, spirits, or natural causes.

This attempt to understand mental disturbances in their own cultural context has proved more fruitful than have earlier examinations of mental illness from a Western psychiatric perspective. CL

See also emotions; ethnomedicine; mind-body problem.Further reading C. Helman, Culture, Health and Illness; , S. Kakar, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors.



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