Jan. 26, 2017

Isîhcikêwin in Practice

Bringing traditional healing and wellness into health services with Indigenous people

Grounded in Western values, conventional mental health services may lack the culturally-appropriate programs and practices needed to meaningfully engage and best serve Indigenous communities. Despite good intentions, current programs often do not address the necessary ethics and approaches to facilitate effective mental health services with these populations. This often fails to meet the needs of Indigenous people, and may lead to distrust of service providers. Helping shape mental health services to better serve Indigenous peoples living in urban spaces is part of Dr. Karlee Fellner’s current work.

Traditional methods

In her doctoral dissertation, Dr. Fellner (Cree/Métis) spoke with sixteen Indigenous mental health professionals in British Columbia about their perspectives on how mental health services can better meet the needs of Indigenous people. As she was putting together her findings, Dr. Fellner found that clients and community members in Minnesota, where she was completing her doctoral internship at the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis (IHB), were asking for similar changes.

Dr. Fellner and a team of local Elders and collaborators began working with the IHB to promote health services which honour cultural practices, spirituality, and holistic wellness as a way of better meeting the needs of the local community. Using information gained from her own experience, Indigenous leaders, and research literature, Dr. Fellner brought a way of ‘translating’ between Indigenous methods, mental health services, and the demands of the American health care system.

Dr. Fellner and her collaborators are currently working with all 80 members of the IHB, conducting regular professional development retreats that focus on transforming the organization’s approach to Indigenous wellness. With the support of IHB leadership, local Elders, and a colleague from the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Fellner ensures these sessions are grounded in traditional approaches to wellness, and are guided by the findings of her work. The IHB is currently putting together a medicine bundle, which frames their work with the local community and their commitment to Indigenizing service provision.

Forging a new path

Dr. Fellner continues to track the impact of her work, and has already begun seeing changes. There is an increasing amount of Indigenous culture represented in the services provided by IHB, the practitioners are reporting greater awareness of Indigenous approaches, and the practices within the organization are shifting to integrate this new knowledge.

This work has also spurred changes closer to home. A new certificate on Blackfoot (Niitsitapii) approaches to wellness is now being offered as part of Werklund’s Interdisciplinary Master of Education (MEd) program. Working in collaboration with Red Crow Community College and the local Kainai Nation, this program presents an opportunity for those working with Indigenous communities to explore and understand culturally-relevant approaches to counselling and wellness. The four courses will expose students to Blackfoot culture and values, wellness practices, and immerse them in aspects of traditional Blackfoot ways of knowing, being, and doing. Based on the work of her research, Dr. Fellner hopes these programs will increase the reach of effective health services for Indigenous people.


Find out more about the Niitsitapii Approaches to Wellness MEd program