Families in Psychiatry

Old wives’ tales, traditional medicine, and science


Sixteen-year-old Ana and is sitting on the bench with her science teacher, Ms. Tehrani, waiting for the bus to take them back to their village after school. Ana wants to hear her science teacher’s opinion about her grandmother.

Dr. Alison Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Do you respect your grandmother?

Why yes, of course, why to do you ask?

So you think my grandmother is wise when she tells me old wife tales?

Like what?

Well, she says not to take my medicine because it will have bad effects and that I should take her remedies instead.

What else does she tell you?

Well, she says that people are born how they are and that they belong to either God or the Devil, not to their parents.

What else?

She thinks I am a fay child; she has always said that about me.

What does that mean?

It means that I have my own ways, fairy ways, and that I should go out in the forest and listen.

Do you?


What do you hear?

I hear about my destiny.

What do you hear?

I hear that I must wash in witch hazel. My grandmother taught me how to find it and how to prepare it. She said I should sit in the forest and wait for a sign.

What sign?

I don’t know.

Well, what do you think about your grandmother?

I love her but …

But what?

I think she might be wrong about all of this, you know, science and all that.

But you do it, anyway?



Aren’t we supposed to respect our elders, and aren’t they supposed to be wise?

Ms. Tehrani is in a bind. What to say? She has no ready answer, feeling caught between two beliefs: the unscientific basis of ineffective old wives’ treatments and the purported wisdom of our elders. She knows Ana’s family and that there are women in that family going back generations who are identified as medicine women or women with the special powers of the forest.

Ana wants to study science but she is being groomed as the family wise mother. Ana is caught between the ways of the past and the ways of the future. She sees that to go with the future is to devalue her family tradition. If she chooses to study medicine, can she keep the balance between magical ways and the ways of science?

Ms. Tehrani decides to expose her class to Indigenous and preindustrial cultural practices and what science has to say. She describes how knowledge is passed down through the generations, and how some of this knowledge has now been proved correct by science, such as the use of opium for pain management and how some knowledge has been corrected by science. She asks the class: What myths have been passed down in your family that science has shown to be effective or ineffective? What does science have to say about how we live our lives?

After a baby in the village dies, Ms. Tehrani asks the local health center to think about implementing a teaching course on caring for babies, a course that will discuss tradition and science. She is well aware of the fact that Black mothers tend not to follow the advice of the pediatricians who now recommend that parents put babies to sleep on their backs. Black women trust the advice of their paternal and maternal grandmothers more than the advice of health care providers, research by Deborah Stiffler, PhD, RN, CNM, shows (J Spec Pediatr Nurs. 2018 Apr;23[2]:e12213). While new Black mothers feel that they have limited knowledge and are eager to learn about safe sleep practices, their grandmothers were skeptical – and the grandmothers often won that argument. Black mothers believed that their own mothers knew best, based on their experience raising infants.

In Dr. Stiffler’s study, one grandmother commented: “Girls today need a mother to help them take care of their babies. They don’t know how to do anything. When I was growing up, our moms helped us.”

One new mother said: I “listen more to the elderly people because like the social workers and stuff some of them don’t have kids. They just go by the book … so I feel like I listen more to like my grandparents.”

Integrating traditions

When Ana enters medical school she is faced with the task of integration of traditional practice and Western medicine. Ana looks to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the U.S. government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches for support in her task. The NCCIH was established in 1998 with the mission of determining the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health approaches, and their roles in improving health and health care.

The NCCIH notes that more than 30% of adults use health care approaches that are not part of conventional medical care or that have origins outside of usual Western practice, and 17.7% of American adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year, most commonly fish oil. This agency notes that large rigorous research studies extend to only a few dietary supplements, with results showing that the products didn’t work for the conditions studied. The work of the NCCIH is mirrored worldwide.

The 2008 Beijing Declaration called on World Health Organization member states and other stakeholders to integrate traditional medicine and complementary alternative medicines into national health care systems. The WHO Congress on Traditional Medicine recognizes that traditional medicine (TM) may be more affordable and accessible than Western medicine, and that it plays an important role in meeting the demands of primary health care in many developing countries. From 70% to 80% of the population in India and Ethiopia depend on TM for primary health care, and 70% of the population in Canada and 80% in Germany are reported to have used TM as complementary and/or alternative medical treatment.

After graduation and residency, Ana returns to her village and helps her science teacher consider how best to shape the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, so that it is both honored by the elders and also shaped by the science of medicine.

Every village, regardless of where it is in the world, has to contend with finding the balance between the traditional medical knowledge that is passed down through the family and the discoveries of science. When it comes to practicing medicine and psychiatry, a respect for family tradition must be weighed against the application of science: this is a long conversation that is well worth its time.

Dr. Heru is professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. She is editor of “Working With Families in Medical Settings: A Multidisciplinary Guide for Psychiatrists and Other Health Professionals” (New York: Routledge, 2013). Dr. Heru has no conflicts of interest. Contact Dr. Heru at alison.heru@cuanschutz.edu.

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