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Open Access Highly Accessed Research

Ethnomedicine and ethnobotany of fright, a Caribbean culture-bound psychiatric syndrome

Marsha B Quinlan

Author Affiliations

Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99163, USA

Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2010, 6:9  doi:10.1186/1746-4269-6-9

Published: 17 February 2010

Abstract

Background

"Fright" is an English-speaking Caribbean idiom for an illness, or ethnomedical syndrome, of persistent distress. A parallel ethnopsychiatric idiom exists in the French Antilles as s├ęsisma. Fright is distinct from susto among Hispanics, though both develop in the wake of traumatic events. West Indian ethnophysiology (ethnoanatomy) theorizes that an overload of stressful emotions (fear, panic, anguish or worry) causes a cold humoral state in which blood coagulates causing prolonged distress and increased risks of other humorally cold illnesses.

Methods

Qualitative data on local explanatory models and treatment of fright were collected using participant-observation, informal key informant interviews and a village health survey. Ethnobotanical and epidemiological data come from freelist (or "free-list") tasks, analyzed for salience, with nearly all adults (N = 112) of an eastern village in Dominica, and a village survey on medicinal plant recognition and use (N = 106).

Results

Along with prayer and exercise, three herbs are salient fright treatments: Gossypium barbadense L., Lippia micromera Schauer, and, Plectranthus [Coleus] amboinicus [Loureiro] Sprengel. The survey indicated that 27% of village adults had medicated themselves for fright. Logistic regression of fright suffering onto demographic variables of age, education, gender, parental status and wealth measured in consumer goods found age to be the only significant predictor of having had fright. The probability of having (and medicating for) fright thus increases with every year.

Conclusions

While sufferers are often uncomfortable recalling personal fright experiences, reporting use of medicinal plants is less problematic. Inquiry on fright medical ethnobotany (or phytotherapies) serves as a proxy measurement for fright occurrence. Cross-cultural and ethnopharmacology literature on the medicinal plants suggests probable efficacy in accord with Dominican ethnomedical notions of fright. Further, the cultural salience and beliefs about these medicines may give these medications extra psychoneuroimmune (i.e. mind-body) benefits, or placebo-like effects, for this stress-related folk illness.