Depressive Illness and Navajo Healing

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What is the experience of Navajo patients in Navajo religious healing who, by the criteria and in the vernacular of contemporary psychiatry, would be diagnosed with the disorder called depression? We ask this question in the context of a double dialogue between psychiatry and anthropology and between these disciplines’ academic constructs of illness and those of contemporary Navajos. The dialogue is conducted in the arena of patient narratives, providing a means for observing and explicating processes of therapeutic change in individuals, for illustrating variations in forms of Navajo religious healing sought out by patients demonstrating similar symptoms of distress, and for considering the heuristic utility of psychiatric diagnoses and nomenclature in the conceptualization of illness, recovery, and religious healing. From among the 37 percent of patients participating in the Navajo Healing Project who had a lifetime history of a major depressive illness, three are discussed herein, their selection based on two criteria: (1) all met formal psychiatric diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode at the time of their healing ceremonies, and (2) together, their experiences illustrate the range of contemporary Navajo religious healing, including Traditional, Native American Church (NAC), and Christian forms. We suggest that, despite the explicit role of the sacred in religious healing interventions available to Navajo patients, differences between biomedical and religious healing systems may be of less significance than their shared existential engagement of problems such as those glossed as depression.

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