5.2.2  Personalistic explanation

Personalistic explanations for the cause of illness are more likely to be part of a traditional method of defining the cause of illness. According to this viewpoint, illness is seen as being due to acts or wishes of other people or supernatural beings and forces (Figure 5.2). Adherents to personalistic belief systems think that the causes and cures of illness are not to be found in the natural or scientific world.  Curers usually must use supernatural means to understand what is wrong with their patients in order to return them to health.  Examples include that personalistic causes for mental disorders include spirit possession or bewitching.

(a)  An older woman grips an amulet she wears around her neck (b)  A young boy wears an amulet around his neck.
Figure 5.2(a)  This older woman puts a lot of faith in the amulet she wears around her neck that she believes will keep her healthy. (b)  Young people may also put their faith in traditional ways of keeping healthy. (Photo: (a) and (b) © 2009 Sean M. Winslow, www.larkvi.com [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .)

The way the community perceives or explains the causes of illnesses has a far-reaching effect on influencing people’s health-seeking behaviour and their choice of treatment options when deciding between modern or traditional treatment. Individuals or communities who think that illnesses are caused by naturalistic causes are more likely to choose modern treatment and attend for treatment at a hospital or health centre. Those individuals who perceive illnesses as having personalistic causes are more likely to choose traditional treatments such as holy water and go to see a traditional healer or a religious leader. As health educators your responsibilities will be to understand and identify the individual and community-level perceptions towards disease and educate people towards naturalistic explanations of the cause of illnesses, while being aware of their personalistic ideas.

  • Look back at the first question in Section 5.2 and note which beliefs listed as 1 to 5 you think are naturalistic and which are personalistic. Then summarise which of the explanations of the causes of illnesses assume that illness will be cured by scientific methods and which by supernatural cures?

  • In the previous question examples 3 and 4 were naturalistic and 1, 2, and 5 were personalistic. In your summary you should have noted that naturalistic beliefs are associated with scientific methods while personalistic beliefs are associated with supernatural cures.

5.2.1  Naturalistic explanation

5.3  The Health Belief Model