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Soc Sci Med. 2012 Aug;75(3):548-54. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.03.028. Epub 2012 Apr 21.

Haunted by ghosts: prevalence, predictors and outcomes of spirit possession experiences among former child soldiers and war-affected civilians in Northern Uganda.

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Bielefeld University, Department of Psychology, Postbox 100131, 33501 Bielefeld, Germany.


Phenomena of spirit possession have been documented in many cultures. Some authors have argued that spirit possession is a type of psychopathology, and should be included as a category in diagnostic manuals of mental disorders. However, there are hardly any quantitative studies that report the prevalence of spirit possession on a population level and that provide evidence for its validity as a psychopathological entity. In an epidemiological study that was carried out in 2007 and 2008 with N = 1113 youths and young adults aged between 12 and 25 years in war-affected regions of Northern Uganda we examined the prevalence, predictors and outcomes of cen, a local variant of spirit possession. Randomly selected participants were interviewed using a scale of cen, measures of psychopathology (PTSD and depression) as well as indicators of functional outcome on different levels, including suicide risk, daily activities, perceived discrimination, physical complaints and aggression. We found that cen was more common among former child soldiers then among subjects without a history of abduction. Cen was related to extreme levels of traumatic events and uniquely predicted functional outcome even when the effects of PTSD and depression were controlled for. Our findings show that a long-lasting war that is accompanied by the proliferation of spiritual and magical beliefs and propaganda can lead to high levels of harmful spirit possession. In addition, we provide evidence for the incremental validity of spirit possession as a trauma-related psychological disorder in this context.

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