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Psychological Services/Therapy in First Nations Populations: A Critical Perspective

Mar 31

G’day all.  This brief article was first published in the BC Psychologist’s Journal a few months back.  My interest in this topic springs from two sources.  The first is the nature of my work as a psychologist specialising in conflict management.  As you may recall, I have consulted with the principle parties involved in conflicts between various police services and Aboriginal groups from Gustafsen Lake, through Apex Alpine, to the Six nations stand-offs in Ontario.  As a result of these experiences, I have developed an interest in Aboriginal Culture and Spirituality.  The second is my discomfort with main stream psychology’s focus on individuals, and its’ almost total disregard of the impact of power differentials; sexual, social, organizational and racial differences on psychopathology.

With regard to terminology, I think it may be more respectful, and more inclusive, to use the terms Aboriginal or Indigenous rather than “First Nations”.  The Aboriginal peoples of Canada may all request psychological services; and can include First Nations, Inuit, and Metis regardless of their status under the Indian Act.  This combined group makes up approximately 4.4-5% of the population of the country; it is comprised of 11 major language groups, including 58 dialects and 596 bands and resides on 2,284 reserves, or in urban and rural communities (Statistics Canada, 2008).  The Aboriginal peoples are richly diverse in their cultures, lifestyles, and languages.  It can be argued that even the terms Aboriginal and Indigenous are inaccurate as the people being described are far from homogenous.  They do share however, similar historical experiences that have influenced similar perspectives; and they are welded together through the experience of colonization that has led to a similar body politic and collective identity.

There is much historical evidence (e.g. the somewhat recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to suggest that the mental health issues of the Aboriginal peoples originate with “their being victims of colonization”.  Much of what they present in a therapeutic encounter can be viewed as symptomatic of an “historic trauma response” (Yellow Horse Brave Heart and DeBruyn, 1998; Duran and Duran, 1995).  When this “soul wound” becomes unbearable Aboriginal people can experience what appear to be mainstream “mental disorders”.

It is unfortunate that Aboriginal knowledge systems, in the fields of mental health and its’ treatment, have been underestimated.  These systems when recognized and empowered will be able to take their place in a mainstream that enforces silence and conformity to a single dominant theoretical view of “mental disorder”.  The strength of these knowledge systems is not merely theoretical, but practical and present the experiences and lived realities of the Aboriginal peoples.  For example, the genocidal treatment of their ancestors has left many present day Aboriginal people with a type of “survivor guilt”.  This unresolved guilt remains, as Aboriginal peoples have not been afforded the opportunity to adequately grieve and heal.  Many of the Aboriginal traditions and ceremonies around death have been erased through colonization.  The generations of trauma experienced by their ancestors now lives in the collective consciousness of the present day Aboriginal peoples.  It is this “gut wrenching” emotional response that fuels the blaze, consuming interactions and relationships within communities, families,  and individuals.  Aboriginal/Indigenous health frameworks view the consequences of disenfranchised grief, as masquerading behind mainstream “mental disorders”, and as a shame-like response within the Aboriginal peoples; and this shame derived from one’s identity, culture, and community has given rise to a destructive introjected racism and hatred.  The end product then of this unattended grief, may be a community at war within itself as it struggles for a place in Canadian society.

Psychological interventions into Aboriginal communities are best born from decolonization.  Decolonizing means assisting the Aboriginal peoples in questioning the conventional notions of mainstream psychology/psychiatry.  It means assisting in the assertion of Aboriginal/Indigenous healing systems and the confrontation of a single perspective as the definitive way of understanding psychological issues.  It means assisting the Aboriginal peoples in understanding who they genuinely are, gaining confidence in what they know, and deciding for themselves which mainstream ideas they can work with and which they can’t.

Decolonization embraces the politics of identity and its’ construction.  In order to rationally challenge the dominance of mainstream psychology/psychiatry, Aboriginal people must be in charge of defining their own Aboriginality.  Only then will they be able to abandon the role of passive victims and actively participate in the restoration of their own health.  New truths must be established to overcome the “soul wounds” inflicted by governmental policies like “kill the Indian in the child”.  And as mainstream psychological methods have been less than successful, there is little to be lost in recognizing traditional healing and cultural methods.  For example, preliminary steps on the path to healing require mourning, dreaming/visioning (Laenui, 2000).  Aboriginal perspectives posit that in order to break free of paralyzing emotion, people must mourn what has been taken from them.  Moreover, the chances of healing are increased by dreaming/visioning what the Aboriginal peoples want in their futures, and how to utilize resources toward that end for the entire community.

Finally, and in harmony with decolonization, the mental health of Aboriginal communities seems to lay in their degree of autonomy.  Those communities with more local control and cultural continuity appear to thrive whereas those with less psychological and spiritual connection with their past, present and future seem not to.  Those communities with more control of local government, renewed cultural practices, and successful land claims boast overall better mental health for their constituents.  Chandler and LaLonde (1998) demonstrated the benefits of this alternative perspective by discovering a strong relationship between the degree of community autonomy and suicide rates in British Columbia Aboriginal communities.  They found that of the 196 Aboriginal communities in the Province, those with greater independence and cultural continuity were also those with significantly lower suicide rates among their youth.

To conclude, an alternate perspective on the provision of psychological services to Aboriginal peoples recognizes how powerful differentials between opposing views on healing and well-being are often ignored, resulting in hegemonies that are oppressive and insensitive to historical and local needs.  By questioning the conventional notion that mainstream psychology is the “only story”, a more critical approach can be considered as a means to empowerment; a way to assist the marginalized in realistically evaluating their participation in health frameworks that do not recognize indigenous knowledge systems, or meet their needs.


Dr. Mike Webster

Reg’d Psych (#0655)


P.S.  Still waitin’ “Brutal Bob”.  How’s your training going?  Without giving away too many trade secrets, I’m really into this TRX thing!!  I’ve almost totally abandoned the “free weights”, for this U.S. Marine designed system, it’s really killer!!…….oh shit, I did it again, was that a threat?  Listen m’man, I’ve been thinking.  My “rasslin” buddies all think the reason you don’t respond has something to do with poultry and fecal matter.  I on the other hand like to give you the benefit of the doubt.  You see I figure it this way……I’m inviting you into a world that you are entirely unfamiliar with?  You may need a graduated entry, so how about this?  How about we make this a tag team match, that way you could have company in the ring and wouldn’t feel so “sheepish”…..that’s a better way of framing your hesitancy……  Now right there at NHQ you have a likely looking partner in The “chunky” fellow, what’s his name?………..oh yeah Mr. MacMillan.  You don’t likely remember who my partner will be?  It will be the chap I held the NWA World Championship Tag Team Belts with.  He was a masked man that went by the name “The Pro”.  He doesn’t speak very much and when we were partners I did most of the talking (what a surprise eh?).  These days I sort of do a channeling thing with him.  He told me he’s keen on the angle.  I’d love to show you a picture of us wearing the belts but I don’t know how to get the picture into the computer.  Maybe you could give me a call and give me some instruction; you look like one of those computer “geeks”.  Or maybe one of the followers of the blog could assist me.  You would just love this guy, “The Pro”, and would he ever love to get a hold of you………..oh shit!!!!…….I did it again!  Anyhooooo “Brutal Bob” give us a shout when you have a few minutes, we have to get this promotion rolling!

“Iron Mike” Webster


From → Other

  1. Scottish Soldier permalink

    Aye, Iron Mike, there ya go speakin’ about our National Animal, the sheep!

    If you’re havin’ a wee bit of difficulty gettin’ this guy, Brutal Bob, into the ring or even a’commin’ to the West Coast, why not see if he might be enticed with a pair of brand new “wellies”. The pair that he has in Ottawa is probably pretty well worn out what with that big flock that he shepherds over.

    Aye, by the way, Ticket Master is still holdin’ my money for those ringside seats that I ordered.

    Aye, the pipes are a’callin’ again.

    Families of missing and murdered indigenous women give police a failing grade3022709


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