September 25, 2022

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How to Decolonize Mental Health Treatment

How to decolonize mental health treatment requires more than cultural competence. As Mullan points out, racial and ethnic trauma have a significant impact on many people’s mental health and treatment. Until recently, psychiatric and psychological pathology did not take these historical factors into account. Decolonizing mental health treatment seeks to address this lack of understanding through practices that acknowledge the cultural context of healing and treatment.

The history of psychology is entwined with colonial oppression, and these historical influences have been reflected in our treatment of mental health. For example, in Western psychology, the biomedical model was used to classify minority groups, and the claim that the issue was inherent to the individual or culture prompted forced treatment and criminalization. Many of these treatments were physically harmful, and exacerbated the distress of those seeking help.

In response to these historical issues, many clinical psychologists have begun to examine decolonization. While the current practice of psychotherapy is largely apolitical, it perpetuates structural racism that disproportionally affects BIPOC communities. As a result, people of color are overdiagnosed with behavior problems, such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Because of these misdiagnoses, many children end up in the juvenile justice system.

The importance of equity in mental health treatment can be demonstrated through the experiences of residential school survivors. A documentary by Tim Wolochatiuk entitled We Were Children addressed these issues and the challenges faced by survivors today. In the Canadian context, the Catholic Church and the Canadian government have responded to this history, but this does not mean that these institutions have truly reconciled with the Indigenous population of Canada. The process must be comprehensive and encompassing.

Another example of a decolonized prison mental health treatment program is the Alice Springs Correctional facility’s Kunga Stopping Violence Program. The program incorporates Indigenous culture and values into treatment and explores the impact of colonization on the individual participants. Continual reflection and discussion led to mutual understanding and growth in the group. Participants were encouraged to speak their preferred language, a practice that prison guards tend to discourage.

The goal of a decolonized mental health treatment model is to create an environment where people of color are able to heal collectively from the trauma of racial and ethnic discrimination. In this way, therapy becomes a process of collective healing that connects individuals of different backgrounds with their ancestral practices. As a result, it is more effective in healing the wounds of colonization and oppression.

As Indigenous communities are overrepresented in incarceration centers across Canada, it is imperative to create programs that target their mental health challenges. Substance abuse complicates rehabilitation and re-integration, and identifying the underlying causes and working with them can help to develop solutions. Indigenous youth offenders, in particular, are most likely to engage in anti-social behavior due to self-medication and trauma.