Espiritismo is the belief that problems, conceptualized by Western psychologists as being related to mental health issues, are caused by spirits. These spirits can be forced away from the person through interventions offered by a folk healer, the espiritista. After the spirits leave, the person returns to mental health.
The core beliefs of espiritismo were developed by Frenchman Allan Kardec. He wrote a book of orations, Le Livre des Esprits (The Spirits’ Book) that attracted European and Latin American intellectuals. His work was available in Cuba and Puerto Rico by the 1860s. By the 1870s it had had a marked effect on religious practices in the Spanish- and French-speaking Caribbean and Latin America. In Cuba, espiritismo was used as a foundation for the African-derived religious system known as Santerfa. According to Kardec, espiritismo consists of an invisible world populated by spirits that surround the visible world. The spirits can enter the visible world and attach themselves to human beings. Some of these spirits are presently incarnated as human beings and others are not. In other words, it is the belief that the soul is immortal and that the spirits of dead persons can communicate with incarnated persons or that they may intervene directly in the lives of people.
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Spirit mediums, or espiritistas, serve the purpose of communicating between the incarnated spirits and the spirits of the dead. Healing by the espiritistas consists primarily of removing harmful spiritual influences from the person and strengthening positive ones. This is done through a number of interventions: lighting special blessed candles, saying specific prayers, or donating a specified amount of money to a charity.
Similar beliefs and practices are seen in other cultures. An example of a related phenomenon is Arab culture’s belief in the jinn. Jinn are creatures who are similar to angels but are under the dominion of Satan. Problems described as mental health issues in Western psychology are seen as being caused by jinn. An individual is placed under possession of the jinn either through the black magic incantations of another or by visiting locations where the jinn dwell and failing to ask for God’s protection while there.
The diagnostic process for jinn possession is to visit a sheik, the cultural equivalent of an espiritista. The sheik reads passages from the Qur’an and closely observes the individual to differentiate between wholesale possession and temporary jinn visitation. Possession is marked by seizure activity during the Qur’an reading and requires a formal exorcism. On the other hand, a temporary visitation by the jinn, marked by twitching fingers during the Holy reading, requires the incantation-specific prayers or drinking a glass of water into which a Qur’anic verse has been placed.
While espiritismo and jinn possession are similar, there are distinct differences. In espiritismo, it is the souls of the departed who are vexing the victim, whereas jinn are supernatural creatures separate from humans. The main similarity lies in conceptualizing mental health concerns on a metaphysical plane and requiring treatment that includes forms of exorcism, prayer, or theistic ritual activity. It is useful for counselors to be familiar with these concepts when engaging in cross-cultural counseling, as these beliefs may impact the clients’ expectations toward the counseling process. It is not recommended that counselors naively attempt to include such practices within their counseling practice.
- Al-Ashqar, U. S., & Zarabozo, J. A. (1998). The world of jinn and devils. Boulder, CO: Al-Basheer.
- Comas-Diaz, L. (1981). Puerto Rican espiritismo and psychotherapy. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51, 636-645.
- Kardec, A. (2005). The spirits’ book. New York: Cosimo.