Home Institution

Tufts University

Publication Date

Spring 2011

Program Name

Chile: Public Health, Traditional Medicine, and Community Empowerment


Background: In the past decade, the issue of cultural competance has emerged as an important strategy for improving quality of health care. In northern Chile, home of the vast majority of the country’s Aymara indigenous population, efforts to promote cultural competance have led to greater recognition of traditional medicine and cooperation between Aymara healers and Chilean care providers. Success in this area depends on a comprehensive understanding of current health beliefs and practices in the Aymara community. While the traditional Aymara medical system has been well-researched, there is a lack of understanding of how the Aymara people perceive and treat conditions identified by Western medicine as mental illnesses.

Objective: This study aimed to identify current views and practices concerning sadness and worry among the Aymara people in northern Chile. In particular, the study aimed to answer three main research questions: how do the Aymara people perceive sadness and worry? Do the Aymara people use tradictional medicine to alleviate these experiences, and if so, in what manner? And finally, what are the opinions of the Aymara people with respect to mental health care in Western medicine?

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 Aymara adults living in the town of Putre, capital of the comuna Putre in the region Arica-Parinacota. Interviews were also conducted with four Aymara healers and the psychologist of the health center in Putre. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and a content analysis was conducted to identify common responses and major themes pertinent to the key concepts under study.

Results: According to those interviewed, loss of family members, problems in the family, and loneliness were principal causes of sadness. Half of the participants recognized sadness as a necessary component of a life balance, and worry was generally viewed as a natural part of daily existence. None of the participants had ever consulted an Aymara healer to alleviate sadness and/or worry; however, all Aymara healers reported that they had treated people for sadness and/or worry. There was a possible but unclear clear connection between these experiences and spiritual illnesses such as el susto. Opiniones about mental health care varied, with the majority of participants recognizing the benefits of such attention for certain others but not themselves.

Conclusions: Some beliefs about sadness among the Aymara people in Putre reflect the values of balance and harmony in the Aymara cosmovision. Overall, sadness and worry are viewed as natural life processes, while depression is recognized as a distinct pathology. Most people identify maintaining an active, social lifestyle as a way of avoiding sadness and worry. While the Aymara people do not report using traditional medicine for sadness and/or worry, they do consult Aymara healers for conditions that may be related to these experiences. Most residents recognize the theoretical benefits of mental health treatment; however, there is a lack of understanding of the function of such services. Likewise, there is a need for trainings on Aymara culture for health professionals working in Putre.


Community Health | Inequality and Stratification | Mental and Social Health

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