When Mental Illness Is Mistaken for Demonic Possession

when mental illness is mistaken for demonic possession

by Emily Korstanje

When Nadia was 18, her parents took her to a Muslim faith healer who claimed to be able to exorcize her depression.

Throughout her adolescence in Saudi Arabia, Nadia* struggled to find joy in life.

“As time went on, I felt like I couldn’t hold myself together,” Nadia said. “It feels like my life is wasted, because society doesn’t think that I have value, there is so much pressure to be something you are not here.”

Around her 18th birthday, her angst turned into full blown depression. She often felt worthless, suffered from anxiety and at times could barely get out of bed. Nadia knew she needed help and turned to her parents for support. Uneducated about mental illness and extremely superstitious, her parents took her to a religious (also known as faith or traditional) healer to perform an exorcism on her. They believed that she was possessed.

Nadia explained her symptoms to the religious healer who affirmed her parents’ fears and claimed that evil spirits entered her because of her lack of faith.

“He made me drink something strange, recited the Quran and then choked me with two of his fingers until I passed out,” Nadia said. “When I woke up he convinced my parents that I was definitely possessed, because if I wasn’t, I would have never passed out—even though I had marks on my throat.” Her parents thought that the healer laying hands on her was part of the ritual.

After the exorcism, the religious healer claimed she needed ten more similar sessions to take the demons out. Nadia refused and told her parents that she would kill herself if they ever tried to brought her back to the healer. She described the session as “hell.”

“So, here I am, ten years later and still apparently ‘possessed,'” Nadia laughed. “I had to learn to try to get through the days on my own.”

Whether it’s shamans from Ecuador to Russia or Christian religious leaders from the US, various regions and religions across the globe use faith healers. Religious healers may have little to no psychology or medical related background, and earn their living by performing religious rituals and healing people from supernatural issues such as possession. According to one Stanford University researcher, “The concept and practice of exorcism crosses cultural and historical boundaries.”


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