by Heather Sanders
Dr. Alanaise Goodwill is Anishinaabe of the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation in Manitoba and now resides in Sto:lo territory where she practices counselling psychology within several Indigenous communities.
She is one of very few Indigenous registered psychologists in British Columbia and one of only 11 with an academic appointment at a Canadian university. A prolific scholar, Goodwill is helping decolonize mental health practices by integrating Indigenous approaches to well-being into counsellor training, trauma intervention, and research.
For example, she has worked with residential school survivors, and developed culturally appropriate counselling techniques. She has written curriculum and programming for Brandon University, the Justice Institute of B.C. and the University of British Columbia, and was recruited by the College of Psychologists of B.C. to provide cultural competency training to its members relating to psychotherapy practices with Indigenous people.
She recently collaborated on a paper with UBC colleague Marla J. Buchanan, doctoral student Roger John and graduate student Sarah Panofsky. Indigenous Trauma Intervention Research in Canada: A Narrative Literature Review, identifies 11 Canadian studies that employed culturally appropriate trauma interventions within Indigenous communities. Their review highlights the need to develop healing practices that address Indigenous historical trauma while contributing to the growing scholarship validating Indigenous healing initiatives.
“This research provides a good snapshot of the evidence that’s available,” says Goodwill. “We hope this information can be used to generate more research studies to address the gaps in the literature, develop trauma-informed therapy, and engage Indigenous ways of healing.”
An urgent need for trauma-informed care
It is widely accepted that Indigenous people in Canada experience a higher burden of psychological distress and poor health compared with non-Indigenous Peoples. They are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and intergenerational trauma stemming from colonization, residential schools and lack of inadequate health care. Indigenous people have a life expectancy 12 years lower than the national average. Some of the most commonly experienced mental health challenges in Indigenous communities include suicide (particularly in youth), alcoholism, violence, and depression.
Contemporary Indigenous mental health research is beginning to address the collective, complex trauma experienced over generations and to contextualize Indigenous health within the legacy of colonization. However, in practice, dominant counselling models in Canada neglect Indigenous perspectives that value holism, spirituality, relationality, and connection to the natural world. This is something that Goodwill and the other researchers want to change.
Their paper reviewed 11 studies of culturally relevant trauma interventions within Canadian Indigenous communities, all of which integrated Western and Indigenous approaches, although levels of integration varied. Several took place on reserves, and many included facilitation by traditional healers and Elders, alongside counsellors. Indigenous healing practices included the Medicine Wheel, sharing circles, Sweat Lodge ceremonies, smudging, drumming, the use of sacred bundles, and the guidance of traditional healers and Elders. One featured a traditional Peruvian ayahuasca ceremony to relieve stress and promote healing.
In all of the studies participants reported a strengthening of their Indigenous identity as a result of the intervention, which was central to healing. The collective aspect of interventions such as healing circles and the relationships with counsellors, traditional healers, and other participants helped participants develop trust in the process, trust in themselves and connection to others. One of the keys to culturally appropriate trauma intervention was an increased understanding of historical trauma alongside an improved sense of personal empowerment and self-determination. Connection to spirituality was identified as another key aspect of effective intervention.
“The inclusion of spirituality was the most consistent find, it is a common universal in this study,” notes Goodwill. “So was the education related to colonization and understanding the origin of trauma. Understanding what happened is essential to trauma repair.”
The researchers acknowledge the urgent need to expand trauma services within Indigenous communities, and stress these services need to be based on research establishing their therapeutic effectiveness. At the same time, Indigenous communities are requesting interventions that are culturally appropriate and grounded.
Goodwill recognizes that bringing Indigeneity into psychology and prioritizing the mental health needs identified by Indigenous communities requires practitioners with vision in the academy as well as in the community.
“We need to increase the number of Indigenous scholars and psychologists in Canada that can take on this work, that can integrate psychotherapy with ceremonial practices to repair trauma,” she says. “As part of my course work and because of my background, I am able to teach Anishinaabe caregiving and to indigenize my teaching methods by using what I know.
For example, if you visit an Anishinaabe community, you are welcomed and respected, and this relates to our original law, and our creation story. In my teaching and in my practice I model an approach to care that is intentional with a deep Anishinaabe caregiving ethic. There is a qualitative difference in this type of counselling – presence, connection, relationality and caregiving.
“It is such a good quality of education for our students. We want to support the next generation of therapists that can thrive in the field – plus we really want expand and promote out work.”
“Communities are ready for this – and as an engaged university we want to be ready to meet that need.”
The researchers acknowledge the generous support of the Vancouver Foundation.
For emotional support or assistance, please contact the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1-800- 721-0066 or 24hr Crisis Line 1-866-925-4419