Indigenous Healing Techniques and Counseling
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“I see the future of counseling as one where we develop theories that are more inclusive.”
Dr. Edil Torres Rivera, Professor of Counseling and Coordinator of the Latinx Cluster at Wichita State University
Western psychotherapy suffers from its own biases. Through a long history of colonization, Western society’s Eurocentric views have excluded not only individuals and cultures but entire modes of thought. That myopia has hindered the efficacy and reach of counseling and psychotherapy. Fortunately, it’s starting to change.
Indigenous healing techniques, long a victim of the colonial mindset, are finally being re-examined and reintroduced with a respect that’s historically been missing. These tools and approaches can significantly benefit counselors and their clients, helping address the complex needs of a diverse population. And by revisiting techniques previously lost to bias, counseling and psychotherapy may experience a renaissance that reinvigorates the field.
The future of counseling and psychotherapy is decolonized and diverse. Read on to learn more about that future and how Indigenous healing techniques play a role in it.
Meet the Expert: Edil Torres Rivera, PhD
Dr. Edil Torres Rivera is a professor of counseling and coordinator of the Latinx cluster at Wichita State University. His primary research focuses on complexity and how Indigenous healing techniques are a necessary ingredient when working with ethnic minority populations in the United States.
Dr. Torres Rivera earned his master’s in counseling psychology with a concentration in mental health counseling from Boston University, and his PhD in educational psychology with a concentration in multicultural counseling from the University of Connecticut.
His work has appeared in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Journal of Counseling and Development, Journal of Addictions and Offender Counseling, and many more. He currently serves on the editorial boards of the Interamerican Journal of Psychology and the Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology. Dr. Torres Rivera is also president-elect of the American Counseling Association (ACA).
Decolonizing Counseling with Indigenous Healing Techniques
“One of the biggest misconceptions is the idea that there’s only one way to look at the world, only one way to understand reality,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “If you believe the only history of civilization is Western—the Romans and the Greeks—then you forget the Egyptians in Africa, the Aztecs in Central America, the Incas in South America. You leave out 80 percent of the world.”
Multicultural counseling seeks to accept and integrate a multiplicity of histories and experiences. By doing so, it begins decolonizing some of the language and thinking coded towards the Eurocentric approach. This isn’t lip service; there are measurable effects. Evidence suggests that the imposition of a universal psychology across diverse groups has been wrong and actively harmful: replacing Indigenous healing with Western psychotherapy may have contributed to high suicide rates among native populations (APA 2009).
“The ideas of decolonization and Indigenous healing techniques are interrelated,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “The movement now is: let’s decolonize, but also indigenize. And in order for us to indigenize our techniques, we need to go back and look at how history was written.”
Indigenous healing techniques exist across a wide and varied spectrum. On one hand, Dr. Torres Rivera analogizes them with household treatments, such as tea and honey, which have been passed down over generations, and shown efficacy, without ever being exposed to (or needing to be exposed to) the Western system of testing and approval.
On the other hand, Indigenous healing techniques can relate to entire frames of mind: Indigenous groups were the first environmentalists, drawing lessons from nature’s power and balance. An entire worldview, just one of many, exists between those two metaphorical hands.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve started to discover there was a lot of knowledge that we didn’t call knowledge,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “Finally, we’re starting to see that maybe there’s a way to connect those pieces of knowledge into what we’re doing right now.”
Integrating Indigenous Healing Techniques and Counseling
Decolonial psychology supports oppressed and impoverished communities in existing outside of the superimposed borders of traditional Western thinking. That includes integrating Indigenous healing techniques that historically have been excluded. These techniques may be particularly valuable in minority communities, where they can shift therapy away from merely coping with oppression to validating individual experiences and grievances.
“One of the steps to this decolonization process is the idea of grievance,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “These people lost something. That can be what creates depression, high-risk behavior, substance abuse, suicide. If they aren’t allowed to go through that process of grievance, they will not be able to dream again, and to be able to have plans about their future.”
The decolonized mindset and Indigenous healing techniques have applications in every demographic.
“During the colonization process, we demonized things that weren’t part of what we brought in,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “What that did is deprive people of versatility, of the ability to broaden their horizons. But when you allow people to be who they really are, then that rigidity goes away, and you start to create more wellness, more healthy behaviors.”
An open mind opens avenues to healing. Dr. Torres Rivera points to the example of psychedelics: vilified by Western culture for centuries, they’ve recently found some acceptance as an effective tool for trauma. Contrastingly, Indigenous cultures have used psychedelics since time immemorial. How Indigenous cultures used psychedelics—with structure, purpose, and ritual—can, when compared to what is typically missing from Western recreational experiences, inform how psychedelics are truly effective.
“One size does not fit all,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “The way we’ve been taught is that our clients have to fit into our theory. But it should be the other way around. We have to find what works for the client.”
The Future of Indigenous Healing Techniques in Counseling
Not every technique is helpful. But the reintroduction of techniques previously lost to cultural bias represents a boon to the counseling field. This is a revolution as much in mindset as in any particular technique, and counselors of the future will increasingly look to their clients and their clients’ experiences for guidance.
“I think of myself, as a counselor, like a policeman, directing traffic,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “The energy comes from the client, and the only thing I need to do is facilitate where the energy is going, and help create some kind of balance.”
According to the American Psychological Association, there are five main approaches to psychotherapy in a counseling setting: psychoanalytic counseling, behavioral counseling, cognitive counseling, humanistic counseling, and holistic counseling. But counselors of the future may decide it’s time to break out of the traditional categories, and start exploring new ones.
“I see the future of counseling as one where we develop theories that are more inclusive,” Dr. Torres Rivera says. “We need to talk about feminist theory, native theory, chaos theory, and other versions of psychology that are more inclusive of particular groups. It’s the time to do it now. Otherwise, we’re continuing to do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome.”