Wendt, D. C., Huson, K., Albatnuni, M., & Gone, J. P. (2022, October 3). What are the best practices for psychotherapy with Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada? A thorny question. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.
In 2016 2.8% of the Canadian population identified as First Nations, 1.7% as Metis, and 0.2% as Inuit. In Canada there are 634 First Nations each with their own traditions, governance structures, and land claims. Colonial violence and land dispossession has led to Indigenous Peoples suffering from many mental health inequities. Indigenous samples are rarely evaluated in clinical trials of psychotherapy. And psychotherapy, as typically delivered, is a practice that is embedded in European cultural values which may not be appropriate for Indigenous Peoples. Defining best practices in psychotherapy with Indigenous Peoples may indeed be thorny given the historical context and values inherent in psychotherapy practice. In this article, Wendt and colleagues review four paths to providing psychotherapy to Indigenous clients, but each path has their challenges. The first path is to offer on empirically supported therapies for specific identifiable disorders. However, out of the hundreds of clinical trials available, only six were conducted that specifically focused on American Indian clients and all for alcohol use problems. Most empirically supported therapies were not validated for use with Indigenous clients, and some argue that this may make these treatments potentially harmful. The second path is to culturally adapt interventions so that the original therapies are maintained but adapted to the needs and culture of the Indigenous population. Some research suggests that cultural adaptations result in moderately better outcomes. Deeper adaptations incorporate cultural beliefs and promote cultural identity and connections to the Indigenous community. However, cultural adaptations tend to preserve a disorder-centric approach to problems rather than seeing problems in terms of a balance between mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The third path involves emphasizing the psychotherapy relationship, the working alliance, and promotion of hope – also known as the common factors approach to psychotherapy. This is highly collaborative approach to how therapy progresses and to maintaining a reciprocal balance in the therapeutic relationship. However, this approach does not necessarily address the European cultural values inherent in most psychotherapies. The fourth path involves efforts to strengthen and revitalize traditional Indigenous practices and cultural education as a means of healing. These might include integrating sweat lodges, the Medicine Wheel, and talking circles. This path embodies a “culture as treatment” approach in which problems are seen within historical losses of identity, purpose, and place. A report from the Canadian Psychological Association and the Psychology Foundation of Canada calls for psychologists to “view themselves as facilitators and supporters of the healing wisdom and knowledge that is already present in Indigenous communities”. However, as Wendt and colleagues note, there are practical barriers to this approach, and even if “culture as treatment” is seen by some as self-evidently effective, it has rarely been researched.
Mental health professionals should avoid being unwitting agents of assimilation when providing clinical care to Indigenous clients. Primarily, clinicians should maintain a stance of cultural humility. Traditional indigenous approaches to mental health are important as a long-term strategy, including traditional understandings of problems, traditional healing, and Indigenous-led cultural interventions. All of this, however, is limited by inadequately addressed colonial harms, poverty, and legal obstacles to Indigenous Nations’ sovereignty.