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Exorcism and Mental Illness Across Different Cultures

Huntington’s Disease (HD) is a rare inherited disorder that breaks down nerve cells in the brain over time, affecting the patient’s behavior and movement. In its early stages, HD symptoms can vary among patients. Mood swings are a common early symptom and HD patients may become depressed, irritable, apathetic, or angry. In some cultures, psychological disorders that also have a motor component, such as Huntington’s Disease (HD), Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia, can result in the individual being labeled as possessed. The notion of possession, in which a person becomes demonized, possessed, or controlled by a demon, was present in many ancient religions and is still present in many beliefs today. To drive out the demons or evil spirits, family members or religious figures turn to exorcism. An exorcist is typically someone of religious faith who is thought to be able to channel benevolent powers and cast out evil spirits from otherwise good people. The concept and practice of exorcism crosses cultural and historical boundaries.

In Catholicism, priests undertake prayers for repentance, divine intervention and protection before engaging in ceremony. The patients then undergo counseling to enhance their spiritual life after the ritual. Buddhist exorcism involves prayer and meditation to persuade the spirit to leave the body. Taoists mainly use chanting, praying, and physical movements to drive away the evil spirits. Among Muslims, the belief of demon possession is not universal. Mr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, head of the Office of the Mufti at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, said, “We believe there are unseen creations of God such as the ‘jinn’ or spirits.” However, he added that although, “One could possibly be possessed by the unseen, but one should not simply blame everything on this. In fact, some people do not believe in possession, although they believe that the unseen exist.” For Muslims who do believe, however, he said that there were those in the community who specialized in the exorcism ritual.

As a case study for practiced exorcism, this paper will examine North Thailand Hill tribe Shamans. There are Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Hmong and Lawa hill tribes. Among these hill tribes of Thailand that migrated from southern China, Laos and Burma, Lisu hill tribal villagers believe in exorcism and possession. According to their belief, there are two beings that can take possession of a person, including the ‘phi pheu’ or tigers as well as ‘phu seu’ or vampires. The hill tribe believes that ‘tai’ or black magic that is implanted in the body of the afflicted person by another person causes many of the illnesses they experience. This object must then be sucked out by the shaman in order for the person to be cured.

While the process of exorcism varies across many cultures, the act of restraining the patient is common; and these restraints can sometimes lead to injuries. The illusion that exorcism works on people with a disease experiencing supposed symptoms of possession can be attributed to the placebo effect. However, there are 370,000 reported cases of people killed during exorcism and another 310,000 reported injuries. These numbers are an underestimate as there are still unreported fatal cases in many rural areas of developing countries where mental illness is stigmatized. Scientifically, demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-V or ICD-10. Patients with symptoms associated with physical or mental illness can be mistaken for victims of demon possession. For example, a shaman beat a mother of two from Thailand with a dried stingray tail because the family had suggested it as a way to rid of her mental illness (later revealed to be a form of motor disorder). Despite her efforts to flee, the shaman abducted her and continued until she died. Even though the shaman was later on charged with murder, this case study shows that the process of exorcism can be fatal and victims can been bound, beaten, burned, starved, and even tortured.

In conclusion, it is difficult to come by documentation of any outcomes of official exorcisms, harmful or beneficial. Exorcisms are supposed to be low-key. Although they are not necessarily a secret, exorcisms are not performed in public or in front of press representatives. However there have been reported cases that victims of exorcisms, whom the officials believe to have mental illnesses, had past away from the rigorous ritual. Therefore, it is imperative to raise awareness about treatments for mental disorder in areas where exorcism is prevalent and mental illness is a social stigma.


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HD in Australia

Australia is a part of world where extensive research regarding Huntington’s Disease has been done on a variety of different subtopics. Researchers have been able to draw conclusions about reproduction, age of onset, and the origins of the disease. They have also come to realize that prevalence varies throughout the continent, reaching as high as 12.1 individuals per every 100,000 in some areas. In an attempt to support individuals affected by HD, Australia appears to have developed a large and supportive HD community spread throughout the continent. In fact, the 2011 World Congress on Huntington’s Disease was hosted in Melbourne, Australia.

This section of Global HD aims to highlight regions within Australia in which the HD populations have been studied, and where history and significance within the HD context have been demonstrated.


An Overview^

Tasmania, an island state located 150 miles off the southern coast of Australia, is the region within the Australian Commonwealth that has been shown to have the highest prevalence of HD, with 12.1 cases per 100,000 people. This is a unique and somewhat surprising finding considering that, in most Western countries, it is predicted that the prevalence of HD is 5 to 7 cases per 100,000 individuals, which is a statistic that is more on par with the rest of the Australian continent. The unusually high prevalence that has been noted in Tasmania has prompted researchers to conduct a variety of studies regarding the region’s HD population, making it a well-studied and important area in the context of global HD.


In 1949, Dr. Charles Brothers came across a large Tasmanian family that was presenting symptoms of HD. This family has continued to be studied over the years, but for medical confidentiality purposes, they are known in research literature only as “the Brothers family.”

It is believed that HD was first brought to Tasmania in 1842 by an English woman identified as “Mary.” Mary was born in Long Sutton, Somerset, England in 1806, and appears to have inherited the disease from her father, “Robert,” who was born in 1776 in Somerset. Researchers have named “Robert” the originator of HD in Tasmania, and he is considered to be the first generation of the Brothers family.

Mary married several times before leaving England for Launceston, Tasmania with her husband, “Charles,” and her seven children in 1842. Mary proceeded to give birth to seven more children in Tasmania. Of her 14 children, nine developed HD. All nine children later went on to have children of their own. As of 1990, seven of these nine lineages still had living descendants, with six branches containing descendants that were either at risk or affected by HD.

Nine generations of the Brothers family have been studied, and more than a century after Mary’s death, there have been 765 identified family members living at risk. The average age of onset for affected Brothers family members was found to be 48.6 years old, and the average age of death was 61.8 years. Fertility studies showed that there was no evidence that suggests that the ability to reproduce was negatively impacted in any of the affected individuals. In fact, the disease appeared to correlate with greater fertility amongst Brothers family members, while led to past (and now out-dated) medical recommendations that at risk individuals be sterilized once they had achieved their desired family size.

Studying the Brothers family lineage provided researchers with a better understanding of HD and helped explain the higher than expected prevalence of HD in Tasmania by allowing them to trace the disease back to a single common ancestor.

The fact that Tasmanians with HD can be traced back to a common ancestor appears to explain the higher than expected prevalence of HD in Tasmania.

The Global HD research and articles received partial support from the Bingham Fund for Innovation in the Program in Human Biology.

Resources in Tasmania^

Huntington’s Disease Association within the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services

The Huntington’s Disease Association provides support for Tasmanians affected by HD. The Association supports Tasmanian people of any age, including those living with HD, families of those affected, caregivers, and anyone at-risk of developing HD. The association can provide financial and moral support, special equipment, food supplements, information booklets, and introductions to others affected by HD.

For more information regarding the association, please visit:

Australian Huntington’s Disease Association Tasmania Inc.

The Association was established to develop educational programs and provide support for Tasmanians affected by HD. It aims to assist families with coping with and understanding the disease, all while helping these families develop a strong unified voice.

For more information regarding the association, please visit:

R. Reddy 2014