7 types of mental illness according to Murut traditional beliefs

In January 1968, the Psychiatric Specialist-in-Charge of Sarawak Mental Hospital K.E. Schmidt published a paper called ‘Some Murut Concepts of Mental Illness’ in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.

The Murut people are an indigenous ethnic group found in the southwest interior of Sabah, northern part of Sarawak, Brunei and North Kalimantan in Indonesia.

They are known to be the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce headhunting.

The paper explored the traditional understanding behind mental health and how native healers played important roles in the successful treatment of mental illness.

It also described the different concepts of mental illness according to the traditional knowledge of Murut people.

So here are seven types of mental illness according to Murut traditional beliefs:
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What is going on with someone’s mental health according to Murut traditional knowledge? Credits: Pixabay.
1.Ruden repan (rupan means ‘well’)

According to Murut beliefs,this illness is due to a haunted well. All Murut interviewed by Schmidt agreed that this was the number one cause of mental illness.

He stated, “If a person passes within two feet of a well or more important, if he comes into the contact with the water, he will have visual and auditory hallucinations of crowds of people who want to catch him. He therefore runs away. The urge to escape ‘them’ may be strong that he might even run into fire in order or escape. He will call out the names of those who he believes want to kill him, usually names of people unknown in the community.”

Sufferers will often die from exhaustion especially since they may refuse food and water. They might jump into the river in an attempt to drown themselves or attempt to hang themselves to be free from the terror of their ‘tormentors’. When they do not see their hallucinations, they will sit quietly and be withdrawn. Such a phase may last from one to several weeks, and spontaneous remissions are known to occur.

According to Murut beliefs, these wells are set up by the spirits under the big trees where they live. They are always at the foot of a hill and are known by the community to be haunted. Thus when a man sets out on a hunt, offerings are made to the spirits of these wells.

If there is no sacrifice, the spirit of the well may disturb the hunter.

So how to heal a person with ruden repan?

The traditional healer or ngurur will make images of animals and send them to the well. Along with these images, there are eggs, rice and household articles piled up on an altar where he will chant incantations.

Then, the ngurur will appeal to the spirits not to disturb the person anymore. If the ngurur is not properly rewarded (which is usually in the form of a buffalo or jars), relapse may occur on the patient.

2.Ruden Talai (talai means a kind of tree)

Ruden talai happens when coming into contact with the fallen leaves or touching a type of tree locally known as pelai or pulai.

The Murut people believe if the trees are disturbed and cut or the under bush is cleared, mental illnesses will occur to whoever that cause them.

Schmidt pointed out, “The illness begins with tiredness and pain in the limbs and trunk. The patient cannot sleep at night, has headache and as in ruden rupan has visual hallucinations of people who want to kill him. A person affected by this kind of mental illness will be aggressive and attack people i.e. running amok.”

3.Ruden meruai

In this condition, the patient will sometimes fall into the fire. They fall as if they were fascinated and attracted by it and have in some instances died from the burns.

The Murut believe that the spirit of the fire takes possession of the patient. Similarly, the spirit of the water will be at work if a person has a fit while taking a bath, and those of the earth of the fit occurs on land.

One of the cures prescribed by the ngurur is fasting. According to Schmidt, there exists some similarity here with dehydration achieved by the diuretic Diamox in the treatment of epilepsy in Western medicine.

4.Ruden mebuyai (mebuyai means stupid)

This condition occurs among young people who for unknown reasons change or become demented. They give indirect answers, are indecisive, aimless and drive-less.

Some people even attribute this condition to ‘sumpah’ or a curse.

5.Ruden sinoso (sinoso means poisoned)

Schmidt pointed out, “This is another allegedly induced psychosis, caused in this case by mixing into the food or drink something which has been obtained from certain trees. This may also kill. The person, after an interval of a day or so will begin to feel cold and wish to sit by the fire. Later, he may feel hot and wish to cool himself. He will often sit motionless for long periods and will neither eat nor drink. In no more than a month, he will die.”

Just like ruden mebuyai, the Murut believe it is another cause of mental illness which is the work of a paid charmer.

Additionally, they believe that a spell of this kind can be imposed for a limited period.

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A mental illness according to Murut belief can be caused by a paid charmer.
6.Ruden pa’lamai

Here is another mental condition caused by a paid charmer. The charmer will uses a kind of grass or a concoction from it and then plant it as a love charm into the seams of a persons’ garment.

When planting it, a charm is spoken: “Each time you wear this garment you will think of him who pays me. You will die if you do not return his love. If you do not die, you will become insane, but you will get well if you marry him.”

What a way to drag someone to marry you! But no worries, there is a cure to break this love spell.

Just throw the urine of several people into the face of the affected person.

7.Mururu teruaien

“Mururu” means “lose” while “teruaien” is “thinking”. It is a condition of dementia without violence but possibly with elements similar to autism which occurs in young people.

Overall, Schmidt deduced that the Murut concepts of mental illness are the various forms of schizophrenia that have been ‘fairly clearly differentiated’.

“Ruden rupan could correspond to acute hebephrenia, ruden talau does appear to have most of the features of paranoid schizophrenia, ruden sinoso sounds like catatonic schizophrenia and ruden pa’lamai may be looked upon as coming nearest to simple schizophrenia,” he stated.

Meanwhile, ruden mebuyai might be simple schizophrenia or post-encephalitic state and ruden meruai covers epilepsy including its symptomatic forms.

Read the rest of Schmidt’s paper here.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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