Were the voices really tied to voodoo?

Culture can affect patients’ understanding of symptoms


The other day, I saw a patient who really brought home the importance of considering culture in psychiatry. The patient’s chief complaint was that he had been hearing the voice of an “invisible man.” I noticed he had an accent I was familiar with, and it sounded like he was from Haiti. Indeed, he was born there.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s surgical-medical/psychiatric inpatient unit, and clinical professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Carl C. Bell

Accordingly, I asked him about voodoo. He said he is not a voodoo worshiper but he believes in voodoo – and he thought that that was what was happening to him. He reported this was the second time he heard the voices – the last time was less than a year ago. He said he came to the hospital because he was trying to wash dishes when he felt some invisible force holding him down. The patient got upset, and he broke the dishes he was washing. Of course, a big melee ensued, and the police were called. They brought the patient to my hospital.

When I spoke with him, he said he was doing pretty well with his Parkinson’s disease but he was a little stiff. The patient was on carbidopa-levodopa 25-100 mg 1.5 t.i.d. for his Parkinson’s, quetiapine 50 mg b.i.d. for his psychotic symptoms, amantadine 100 mg b.i.d. to stimulate his dopamine, ropinirole 1 mg t.i.d. for restless legs, and baclofen 10 mg t.i.d. for muscle spasms.

This is a 66-year-old male who was appropriately groomed and who was cooperative with the interview. He was not hyperactive or lethargic. His mood was euthymic, and he had a wide range of affect as he was able to smile, get serious, and be sad (about his problems). His speech was relevant, linear, and goal directed. His thought processes did not show any signs of loose associations, tangentiality or circumstantiality, but he did have delusions, and current auditory and visual hallucinations. His thought content was surrounding his problems, which because of the culture he is from, were attributed by him to voodoo. He was attentive, and his recent and remote memory were intact. Clinical estimate of his intelligence was average. Despite my explaining to him that his psychotic symptoms were caused by the medication he was taking, his judgment and insight were fair as he explained to me the things that were happening to him were so tangible they had to be real. He had no suicidal or homicidal ideation.

I decided to leave his meds as is, and I gave him 25 mg loxapine at h.s.

When I saw him a few days later, I asked him how he was doing, and he reported that the invisible man and all of his shenanigans were gone. I again explained that the medication he was taking for his Parkinson’s was causing his psychotic symptoms, and now I had proof. Had the voices been tied to voodoo, the medication would not have stopped the symptoms. He looked skeptical.

This struck me as a perfect example of the importance of culture in psychiatry, and I thought it instructive to share.

Dr. Bell is a staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s Medical/Surgical-Psychiatry Inpatient Unit; clinical psychiatrist emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago; former president/CEO of the Community Mental Health Council; and former director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (birthplace of child psychiatry), all in Chicago. He is recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s 2019 Adolph Meyer Award for Lifetime Achievement in Psychiatric Research. Check out Dr. Bell’s new book, Fetal Alcohol Exposure in the African-American Community, at

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