Pomerville, A., Burrage, R.L., & Gone, J.P. (2016). Empirical findings from psychotherapy research with indigenous populations: A systematic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 1023-1038.
Indigenous people around the world have a higher incidence of mental illness compared to other ethnic or racial groups. These higher rates may be related to the historical effects of colonization and to current discrimination. Despite this, there is very little empirical research on psychotherapy provided to Indigenous peoples. Psychotherapy, as commonly practiced, has Eurocentric values by emphasizing individuality, independence, rationality, assertiveness, and by sometimes taking an ahistorical present-centered focus. These values may conflict with some Indigenous cultures that emphasize community, interdependence, mysticism, modesty, and the historical context of current functioning. Hence, psychotherapy as typically defined may require adaptations when used with Indigenous groups. In their review, Pomerville and colleagues examine what is currently known about psychotherapy with Indigenous populations. The populations studied in the existing research includes Indigenous peoples of the US, Australia, Canada, Pacific Islands, and New Zealand. There were no psychotherapy studies prior to 1986, and only 23 studies since then. Most studies emphasized some form of cultural adaptation of the treatment. The majority of studies focused on substance abuse, with only a few on anxiety and depression. Only two studies were controlled outcomes studies (i.e., randomized controlled trials considered by many to provide the best evidence from a single study). Research on individual therapy for Indigenous adolescents is completely lacking. The authors concluded that the efficacy of novel or adapted treatments or the generalizability of existing empirically supported treatments to Indigenous people are currently unknown.
The virtual absence of controlled outcome trials of psychotherapies for Indigenous populations is serious gap in the practice of mental health interventions. This state of the research is particularly problematic given the high rates of mental illness and alarming rates of suicide among adolescents in Indigenous populations. Some studies found discontent among Indigenous communities with the current application of empirically supported treatments, and others argue that Indigenous healing be given the same legitimacy despite no controlled outcome research. On the other hand some authors favour training cultural competence among clinicians who practice standard empirically supported treatments. Pomerville and colleagues suggest that in the absence of evidence, tailoring psychotherapy to address the needs of Indigenous clients by taking into account specific practices of their communities may improve retention and outcomes.