Traditional healers are legitimate resources for youth in American Indian communities, says mental health expert

According to numerous studies, American Indian youth experience disproportionate rates of mental health and behavioral problems, including substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts.

To address this critical problem, an adolescent mental health expert at Washington University in St. Louis says that traditional healers in American Indian communities may be a valuable but under-recognized resource offering alternative and culturally relevant services that complement conventional medical treatment.

“Non-Western approaches like traditional healing need to be recognized as legitimate and complementary services in American Indian communities,” says Arlene R. Stiffman, Ph.D., the Barbara A. Bailey Professor of Social Work at Washington University. “Traditional healers should be recognized for their important involvement in the mental health and behavioral care system in American Indian communities,” she adds.

Traditional healers provide American Indian traditional healing services that include prayers, native medicines and ceremonies and may include the burning of sweetgrass, incense and other substances. Many individuals who call themselves traditional healers offer these services in whole or in part, Stiffman says.

In a recent study, Stiffman examined traditional healers, their backgrounds, roles, services to youth, referral patterns and the characteristics and problems of the youth they serve. The study is titled “Traditional Healers and the Services They Provide.”

“Interestingly, traditional healers offered services to youth that were very similar to those of professional providers, including referrals, counseling and family resources, as well as their unique traditional healing,” she says.

After interviewing 401 Southwestern American Indian youth and 14 traditional healers, Stiffman found that:

• The youth who reported higher levels of cultural and spiritual involvement in American Indian culture were more likely to use traditional providers.

• The majority of the healers also worked in an educational, health or youth service position.

• Traditional providers offered youth an array of services, including traditional healing, counseling, referrals and resources for their families.

• Three fourths of the youth received referrals to other traditional providers and almost half received either counseling or family resources.

• Traditional healers reported that they were firmly embedded in the larger mental health service system and referral network with health and education, inpatient mental health services, outpatient health services, and other nontraditional services.

• Results revealed that traditional healers offered traditional medicine to almost all the youth they served but traditional healers also offered youth many of the same services offered by professional providers, such as counseling, referrals and family resources.

• Traditional healers form collaborative relationships with other providers on behalf of youth with a variety of mental health and behavioral problems.

“Traditional healers play a vital but often under-recognized role in providing services to American Indian youth with mental health and behavioral problems,” Stiffman says.

This study was supported through funding from the National Institutes of Health and is part of Stiffman’s larger study “Adolescent American Indian Multisector Help Investigation.”