Mental Health
Funding Agency(ies):
Principal Investigator(s):
Dr. Brigitte Sébastia
Start Date : 
Duration : 
2 years
Axis 1. of the Social Sciences Department /

After the Ervadi tragedy in an informal mental home located at the dargah in which a fire caused the death of 28 persons in 2001, government measures were taken to improve mental healthcare and to restrict the stay of patients in religious places where no psychiatric care is provided.

An extensive study conducted in 2001-2002 in Tamil Nadu had analysed the reasons for which people with mental disorders of both psychotic and neurotic types were driven or went to religious places. Though the interviews with patients and caregivers had pointed out cultural reasons, deities having the power to get rid of evil spirits and counteract the sorcery acts (emic explanatory model), they had also revealed the failure of bio-psychiatry to provide healthcare at low cost. Impoverished by the cost of cyclic hospitalisations and treatments (psychotics) or unsatisfied by the psychiatrists’ explanations on the illness and efficacy of the medication, patients turned to religious places to test the efficacy of deities’ power or to find protection from marital and societal violence and from social ostracism. Religious places being open and familiar spaces where patients and caregivers experience less stigmatisation, this study had concluded by questioning the relevance to introduce the psychiatry into religious places. This question was fed, on one hand, by one of the proposition of the Tamil Nadu government that consisted to create a psychiatric hospital near Ervadi dargah and to appoint psychiatrists for visiting religious place frequented by mentally ill patients. On the second hand, it was based on the study of the works for reforming psychiatry in 1965-1985 which had revealed that the psychiatrists who had explored the world of healers for understanding how they diagnose and treat the mental disturbances and how they interact with patients, were specifically animated by the objective to convince healers to orient their mentally ill patients to psychiatry.

The alliance between religion and psychiatry has been dealt with in a second study. Analysing the implications of the establishment of a psychiatric clinic within a religious space renowned for attracting mentally ill patients, its goal is to investigate if the use of both religion and psychiatry, categories seen by psychiatrists and lay people as opposite, may offer a model for attracting mentally ill patients who are not or no longer treated.

Materials and methods:

The two-year programme is based on an ethnographical study which is conducting in a temple in Tamil Nadu that traditionally attracts patients with mental disorders. Using open discussions and observations of rituals and of psychiatrists’ consultations, it questions three categories of actors: priests and villagers, psychiatrists, and patients and caregivers in order to analyse the different representations of illness, and the way individuals subjectively deal with different explanatory models of mental illness.

The research is conducted by two anthropologists whose one is a clinical psychologist at Avicennes Hospital and an expert in photography and video.

This study is a part of the programme 2013-2018 ‘Psychologie and anthropologie’ of the CEIAS. It aims to strengthen the collaboration between INALCO/CEIAS and IFP for developing future cross-cultural researches in psychiatry (France, Brazil and India). See the ASCENT project.

External team members:
  • Dr. Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky, (INALCO/CEIAS)
  • Serena Bindi (University of Paris V/EHESS)
  • Sumeet Jain (University of Edinburgh)
  • Sanjeev Jain (NIMHANS)
Main outputs:
- Sébastia Brigitte:
  • Restoring Mental Health in India. Pluralistic Therapies and Concepts.

Edited by Brigitte Sébastia, Oxford University Press, 2009, viii, 318 p.
Language : English 795 Rs

Divided into three sections, the essays by experts in the field explore three kinds of remedies used to manage mental disorders ranging from severe illnesses to mental depression. The first section deals with codified Indian therapies, including siddha, ayurveda, and yoga; the second discusses the therapeutic role of religious places and figures, and the third focuses on psychiatry and psychoanalysis in India, both with historical and ethnographic materials.

An important consensus emerges through the diverse points of view expressed by the contributors. It says that any coherent approach to mental health in India must take into account the holistic environment. This includes religion, health policy, and the common understanding of mental illness and wellness.

Keywords: Siddha, Ayurveda, yoga, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, religious therapy, mental illness

  • Les rondes de saint Antoine. Culte, affliction et possession en Inde du Sud


 Brigitte Sébastia, Paris, Aux Lieux d’Etre, 2007.
 Language : French. 30 Euros.

 The handling of psychogenic disorders and the « indigenisation » of catholic practices in Indian society are at the heart of this book. It presents the study of a sanctuary in South India dedicated to the Portuguese Saint, Anthony de Padua, who holds functions of divine      descent and the ability to exorcise. Pilgrims and Indian catholic patients meet there, and make devotional and ritualistic gestures inspired by Hinduism.

 These rituals are informal because, in this country, the clergy is opposed to exorcism practices. On the contrary, they are scrupulously observed by families who accompany patients suspected of being victims of possession. Relations have a central role in the therapeutic   process. They base themselves on different elements in order to demonstrate the supernatural origin of the ailments. The family then puts pressure on the patient and physically abuses him in order for him to subsequently manifest his possession, which thus proves the diagnostic correct. According to the nature of the ailments, the patient can submit to the relations’ will. This first experience often marks the beginning of a long series of possessions, more and more frequent and violent.

Keywords : Possession, sorcery, indigenisation of Christianism, psychiatry, Siddha medicine, India

2007  “A protective fortress: psychic disorders and therapy at the Catholic shrine of Puliyampatti (South India)”, Indian Anthropologist, 37(1): 67-92.
2009  “Introduction. Restoring Mental Health” in B. Sébastia (ed.) Restoring Mental Health in India. Pluralistic Approaches. Pluralistic therapies and concepts, pp. 1-24. New Delhi, Oxford University Press.
2009  “The last resort. Why patients with severe mental disorder go to the therapeutic shrines in India” in B. Sébastia (ed.) Restoring Mental Health in India. Pluralistic Approaches. Pluralistic therapies and concepts, pp. 184-209. New Delhi, Oxford University Press.
2008    “Apaiser la souffrance psychique ou vaincre les esprits. La place de la thérapie religieuse dans le contexte du pluralisme médical de l’Inde du sud”, in I.G. Županov, C. Guenzi, Divin remèdes. Médecines et religion en Asie du Sud, pp. 301-329. ‘Puruṣārtha 27’, Paris, EHESS.
2010   “Le corps affligé : Regard sur les médecines indiennes et la possession en Inde du Sud”. Bulletin du C.E.H.M., 74, 17-32
2010  ‘Psychanalyse’, ‘Psychiatrie’, ‘psychologie’ in Frédéric Landy, Dictionnai de l’Inde, pp.427-428. Paris, Armand Colin.
2014  Like An Indian god. Saint Antony of Padua in Tamil Nadu as a healer”. In Y. Vargas and M. Sin (eds) Convergence and Collisions:  Disease, Religion and Healing in Asia. (in press)
- Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky and Brigitte Sébastia:



2004  “Les rondes de Saint Antoine. Devotion affliction and possession/ Dance of Saint Antony. Culte, affliction and possession”. Film of 32 mn edited by Christian Sébastia, synopsis and text Brigitte Sébastia. Presented in various seminars and conferences in social sciences, workshops in mental health (associations of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts; BALM) and a film festival organised by Scarf for the World Day of Mental Health 

2014  “Tirttam and tablets”. Film of 23 mn Shooting: Christian Sébastia; Synopsis: Brigitte and Christian Sébastia; Editing: Marie Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky and Brigitte Sébastia (project funded by INALCO – edited by INALCO with participation of IFP). Film presented at the ECSAS conference 27 July 2014 accompanied by a paper by Brigitte Sébastia and Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky “We treat only quite psychotics. The encounter between psychiatry and religion – the case of Gunasilam temple ‘South India)” will be   published in Anthropology and Medicine.


Staff ( IFP & External )

SEBASTIA B., Affiliated Researcher