Voodoo, Juju, Obeah and Shango are among the ancient beliefs that will be investigated for the first time by the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in south-east London. The three-year, pounds 115,000 study aims to find out why black people take so long to seek NHS treatment for mental problems.
The black community has a disproportionately high level of mental illness - possibly because of racism, poverty and stress due to alienation - but cases are made worse by delays in bringing them to the attention of the NHS. Edwin Gwenzi, a research fellow at the institute, is examining the hypothesis that many black people turn to complementary medicine rather than a GP.
Among people of African and Afro-Caribbean descent in the UK there is widespread belief in supernatural powers, he said. "These people are terribly suspicious of outsiders and it can be extremely difficult to access them."
Western medicine has learned much from other cultures and Mr Gwenzi sees no reason for traditional black therapies to be mocked while ancient Chinese and Indian techniques such as acupuncture and yoga have mainstream credibility.
Within the black community, serious mental illness, such as the hearing of voices, is often treated by exorcists, sometimes with tragic results. It is usually only when the law becomes involved that light is thrown on the subject.
In December, a coroner's court heard that doctors were unable to find any physical reason for the bizarre death of Anglo-Nigerian John Ogunleye, 29, a mechanical engineer who appeared to be fit and healthy. His only problem was his belief that he had been cursed by an enemy. The night before his death he told his girlfriend: "I just felt someone walk over my grave."
Dr Stephen Leadbeatter, a leading Home Office pathologist, said that investigations by bacteriologists and biologists drew a blank. Fear of the voodoo-style curse was the only explanation, he admitted.
In 1994 the Old Bailey heard of the death of east London teacher Farida Patel, 22, who suffered from depression. Instead of going to her GP, her family called a Muslim "holy woman" who declared that the young teacher was possessed by a "djinn" - an evil spirit. According to Patel, the spirit went by the name of "Joanne" and threatened to cut her tongue out.
The prescribed "cure" was for her father and siblings to beat the "djinn" out of her. After three days of assaults by her relatives, interspersed with prayers and chanting, Patel died of internal injuries.
Voodoo and similar beliefs seem to be growing, though no one knows how many witch doctors or voodoo priests are working in Britain. The first ever public voodoo ceremony, in a north London nightclub, drew large crowds last year and similar events are planned.
Amid the multicultural hurly-burly of Brixton market is the UK's only voodoo emporium. The shop, its walls lined with a bewildering range of herbs, potions, candles and incense, feels like an apothecary. Its Haitian-born proprietor is "Doc Papa" Bernie Williams, a voodoo priest.
"The power of voodoo can be used for good and evil," says Doc Papa. "The truth is that there are two sides, dark and light, to everything."Reuse content