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Dhat Syndrome Explained

A brief look at one of the strangest psychological culture-bound syndromes

In previous articles I have examined various culture bound syndromes (CBSs) such as koro and berserkers. CBSs comprise a combination of psychiatric and/or somatic symptoms viewed as a recognizable disease within specific cultures or societies and are often unknown outside of their own local regions. One of the more unusual CBSs is dhat syndrome, typically located in the Indian sub-continent (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladash). Dhat is one of the CBSs listed in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases.

The term ‘Dhat syndrome’ was first described by Dr. N.N. Wig in a 1960 issue of the (Indian) Journal of Clinical and Social Psychiatry, and then by Dr. J.S. Neki in the British Journal of Psychiatry (1973). A 1975 paper by Dr. H.K. Malhotra and Dr. N.N. Wig in the Archives of Sexual Behavior called dhat “the exotic neurosis of the Orient”. According to a short paper by Dr. Om Prakash in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, dhat syndrome comprises various psychological, somatic and sexual symptoms attributed by the patient to the passing of whitish fluid, believed to be semen in urine (i.e., psychological distress and anxiety related to semen-loss). Prakash says that the word ‘dhat’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘dhatu’ (which has multiple meanings including ‘metal’, ‘elixir’ and ‘constituent part of the body’). He also noted that:

“This notion of seminal loss frightens the individual into developing a sense of doom if a single drop of semen is lost, thereby producing a series of somatic symptoms…fear of semen loss and resulting problems [in India] is so strong that cures are advertised by vaids and hakims everywhere – on walls, on television, in newspapers and on roadside hoardings”.

The anxiety surrounding the semen loss can also relate to the releasing of semen via nocturnal emissions (i.e., ‘wet dreams’) and masturbation. The symptoms include fatigue, listlessness, appetite loss, lack of physical strength, poor concentration, forgetfulness, guilt, and (in some cases) sexual dysfunction. Given the syndrome relates to psychological anxiety surrounding semen loss, the disorder is (necessarily) found among men, but interestingly, the dhat syndrome has also been applied to women who experience similar symptoms relating to white vaginal discharge). According to an online article on CBSs, it claims that:

“The anxiety related to semen loss can be traced back thousands of years to Ayurvedic texts, where the loss of a single drop of semen, the most precious body fluid, could destabilize the entire body”.

A 2004 literature review on dhat syndrome by Dr. A. Sumathipala and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry speculated that the disorder was a “hypochondriacal preoccupation”. This may have some validity as a 1990 paper by Dr. R.K. Chadha and Dr. N. Ahuja (also in the British Journal of Psychiatry) reported a study of 52 dhat patients. Three-quarters of their sample were reported as having hypochondriacal symptoms.

Another study in the British Journal of Psychiatry a year later by Dr. M.S. Bhatia and Dr. S.C. Malik reported that 93 (out of 144) consecutive patients attending a sexual dysfunction clinic had dhat syndrome. A number of papers published on the dhat syndrome in the 1980s and 1990s all report that depressive, anxiety and/or somatoform disorders are prevalent in the majority of dhat sufferers. A small 1989 Sri Lankan study by Dr. P. De Silva and Dr. S. Dissanayake in the Sexual and Marital Therapy journal on 38 men with sexual dysfunction, reported that ‘semen loss’ was seen by most of the men as the main reason for their sexual dysfunction. The same study reported that 40% of the sample had hypochondriasis. Similar findings have been reported among Bangladeshi men. (It should also be noted that there are various reports of similar syndromes in other countries. For instance, Prakash’s paper also mentions ‘shen-k'uei’ in Taiwan and China which from the symptoms listed appear almost identical to dhat)

Based on papers published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and Indian Journal of Psychiatry (mainly from the 1980s and 1990s), Prakash presents a profile of those affected with dhat and claims that most are young males, recently married, from rural areas, low to average socioeconomic status (farmers, labourers, farmers), and from families with conservative attitudes towards sex. He also claims (seemingly based on a 2001 book chapter by by Dr. A. Avasthi and Dr. R. Nehra) that there are three types of dhat patients:

* Dhat alone (where their symptoms are attributed to semen loss, and with presenting symptoms that are hypochondriacal, depressive or anxiety-related in nature)
* Dhat with comorbid depression and anxiety (where dhat is seen as a symptom accompanying another disorder)
* Dhat with sexual dysfunction

The duration of the symptoms can be relatively short-lived (e.g., 3-12 months) but some papers report people suffering for up to 20 years. Prakash lists the most common co-morbid disorders and sexual dysfunctions associated with dhat. This included depressive neurosis (40%-42%), anxiety neurosis (21%-38%), somatoform and hypochondriasis (32%-40%), erectile dysfunction (22%-62%), and premature ejaculation (22%-44%). Prakash also reports that the majority (i.e., two-thirds) of dhat sufferers recover (66%), with the remainder either improved (22%) or unchanged (12%). Finally, a published paper on dhat syndrome by Dr. Neena Sanjiv Sawant and Dr. Anand Nath in a 2012 issue of the Sri Lankan Journal of Psychiatry noted that dhat beliefs are often based on misconception and myths:

“These myths and misconceptions which are deeply rooted in Indian culture are passed from generation to generation. Due to the lack of proper information and lack of open communication between parents and children, the only source of knowledge for many remain their peers, who are equally ignorant about the subject, and this leads to widespread misconceptions. Many people consult unqualified practitioners who reinforce their ignorance”

References and further reading

Avasthi, A. & Nehra, R. (2001). Sexual disorders: A review of Indian Research. In: Murthy, R.S. (Ed.), Mental Health in India (1995-2000) (pp.42-53). Bangalore: People's Action for Mental Health.

Behere, P.B., Natraj, G.S. (1984). Dhat syndrome: The phenomenology of a culture-bound sex neurosis of the orient. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 26, 76-78.

Bhatia, M.S. & Malik, S.C. (1991). Dhat Syndrome - A useful diagnosis entity in Indian Culture. British Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 69-75.

Chadda, R.K. & Ahuja, N. (1990). Dhat syndrome: A sex neurosis of the Indian subcontinent. British Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 577-579.

De Silva, P. & Dissanayake, S.A.W. (1989) The loss of semen syndrome in Sri Lanka. A clinical study. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 4, 195-204.

Malhotra, H.K. & Wig, N.N. (1975). A culture bound sex neurosis in the Orient. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 4, 519-528.

Neki, J.S. (1973). Psychiatry in South East Asia. British Journal of Psychiatry, 123, 257-269.

Prakash, O. (2007). Lessons for postgraduate trainees about Dhat syndrome. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 208–210.

Sawant, N.S. & Nath, A. (2012). Cultural misconceptions and associated depression in Dhat syndrome. Sri Lankan Journal of Psychiatry, 3, 17-20.

Sumathipala, A. Siribaddana, S.H. & Bhugra, D. (2004). Culture-bound syndromes: The story of dhat syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 184, 200-209.

Wig, N.N. (1960). Problems of mental health in India. Journal of Clinical and Social Psychiatry (India), 17, 48-53.

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