Building a Decolonized Mental Health System: A Reminder from Victoria Day’s Colonial Legacy

A young person raises their fist in a crowded street of protestors lit by the sun

As I pen this blog post, I acknowledge that I do so as a white settler on stolen Indigenous land. Nevertheless, I am keenly aware of Indigenous people’s historical and ongoing injustices, and I understand the importance of using my position to advocate for change, particularly in mental health.

The purpose of this blog post is not to point fingers or boast of accomplishments. Instead, it’s to initiate a dialogue that encourages my colleagues and me to reflect critically on our roles within the mental health profession. Further, it is an invitation to consider how we might integrate decolonizing practices into our work to actively participate in dismantling the structures of white supremacy and systemic racism that have been deeply ingrained in our field.

Over recent years, I’ve begun to witness a powerful movement in mental health care towards decolonization, often spearheaded by Indigenous colleagues. They lead the way with strength and wisdom, offering invaluable insights and healing practices rooted in their rich cultural heritage. This movement is not only transformative; it’s essential.

However, it’s not enough to bear witness to this shift. As white colleagues, we must do more than observe; we must step up, support, learn, and actively engage in this process of decolonization. We must challenge our biases, examine our practices, and embrace new ways of thinking and acting.

Through this blog post, I hope to share my journey of understanding and invite others to join me. It’s not an easy path, one fraught with discomfort and self-confrontation. But it’s a journey fundamental to pursuing justice, inclusivity, and genuine healing in mental health care. Together, we can contribute to a future of mental health practice that respects and honours the diverse experiences of all individuals.

A Call to Action: The Imperative of Decolonizing Mental Health Practices

In the long weekend’s commencement of summer, Canadians celebrate Victoria Day on the last Monday preceding May 25. This day, filled with parades, fireworks, and picnics, honours Queen Victoria’s birth and heralds the start of warmer months. However, underneath this celebratory facade lies a more complex narrative. Victoria Day, linked with the reign of Queen Victoria, serves as a potent symbol of a colonial past characterized by harm and violence towards Indigenous cultures. This isn’t an attempt to undermine our traditions but an appeal to understand the complete picture, a picture tainted by the scars of colonialism.

As we critically engage with the historical legacy of Victoria Day, we’re confronted with the dark shadows of the Victorian era, and this period witnessed extensive colonial expansion, profoundly impacting Indigenous cultures worldwide. This expansion wasn’t just territorial; it seeped into the very fabric of these cultures, resulting in the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families and placement into Residential Schools. Run by the Catholic Church, these schools aimed to erase Indigenous heritage, culture, and language. As a result, many children lost their lives, and countless more suffered lifelong emotional trauma. While we enjoy our picnics and fireworks, it’s crucial to acknowledge these harsh realities, to comprehend the immense human cost of colonialism.

In recognizing these historical realities, we also acknowledge our collective responsibility to confront and redress the lingering impacts of colonialism. This is where decolonization becomes crucial, particularly in mental health. Decolonizing mental health involves profoundly transforming our practices, challenging oppressive structures and integrating approaches that respect and validate diverse cultural perspectives. We’ve seen the limitations of our current system—its inability to create necessary connections, particularly for those facing systemic oppression, and its oppressive structures barring many from accessing the care they need (Zapata, 2020).

Thus, decolonizing mental health is more than an intellectual exercise or a noble aspiration. It is an urgent call to action to reshape our systems and practices to serve all individuals better, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). As we strive to answer this call, we must prioritize creating an oppression-focused mental health system, acknowledging the systemic influences of oppression and colonization, valuing the knowledge within these communities, and empowering them to define what constitutes suffering and healing (Zapata, 2020). By centring on the voices and experiences of those historically marginalized, we work towards a more inclusive, equitable, and relevant mental health system.

Embarking on the journey of decolonizing mental health practices is challenging, requiring an open mind, a readiness to learn, and a willingness to challenge pre-existing notions. It may feel overwhelming or complex, but it is undeniably pivotal – not just for us as professionals or students in the field but for anyone interested in understanding the diversity and richness of human experience. This journey promises to enrich our collective understanding and enable us to champion a more respectful and inclusive approach to mental health. As we navigate this landscape, let’s remember the imperative need for decolonization, keeping it at the forefront of our hearts, minds, and actions.

Embracing Indigenous Knowledge: A Pathway Towards Decolonizing Mental Health

Understanding the impacts of colonialism is crucial to appreciate the complexities of mental health within Indigenous communities fully. The effects of colonialism did not merely cease with the formal end of colonial rule; instead, they reverberated through time, imprinting traumatic scars on successive generations.

The Echoes of Colonialism: Intergenerational Trauma and Postcolonial Psychology

The concept of intergenerational trauma is a testament to this, depicting how trauma is transferred across generations, affecting descendants of the initial victims, even decades later. Indigenous communities often bear the brunt of this, their lives shaped by the traumas of their ancestors who endured the brutalities of colonial rule. This continued suffering underscores the relevance of postcolonial psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on understanding and addressing the psychological aftermath of colonialism. By acknowledging the long-lasting influence of colonial trauma, we can provide those affected with more relevant, empathetic, and practical mental health support (Zapata, 2020).

Respecting Indigenous Wisdom: The Power of Indigenous Ways of Knowing

In our journey towards decolonizing mental health, it is indispensable to integrate Indigenous ways of knowing. Indigenous knowledge systems often starkly contrast Western-centric perspectives on mental health, challenging the prevailing norms and opening doors to novel, culturally respectful insights. Incorporating these Indigenous perspectives offers an alternative approach to understanding mental health that genuinely recognizes and values Indigenous peoples’ cultural context and historical experiences. Embracing these knowledge systems is not merely a respectful gesture; it is a vital step towards a more inclusive, equitable, and effective mental health system that honours the realities of all individuals (Zapata, 2020).

We take essential strides towards decolonization by acknowledging the enduring impacts of colonial trauma and honouring Indigenous wisdom in our mental health practices. The path may be challenging, but the rewards — a mental health system that truly serves all individuals in their full cultural and historical contexts — are undoubtedly worth the effort.

Cultivating a Decolonized Approach to Mental Health: Practical Steps and Considerations

Embarking on the journey toward decolonizing mental health is a challenge that necessitates deep introspection and tangible action. But first, we must grapple with the legacy of colonization and oppression, acknowledging its enduring impacts on the mental well-being of marginalized communities.

Recognizing the Scars of History: Acknowledging Colonization and Oppression-Based Trauma

Our first step towards a decolonized mental health approach is fully acknowledging the historical and ongoing trauma of colonization and oppressive systems. This recognition, while painful, is integral to the process of healing. It allows us to see our client’s experiences in the whole light of their historical and sociopolitical contexts, encouraging us to treat their symptoms and the deep-seated traumas that underpin them.

Fostering Collective Resilience: Emphasizing Community-Centered Approaches

Next, we must adopt a more community-centred approach to our mental health practices. This requires a significant shift away from the individualistic focus of Western psychology, moving towards an understanding of mental health grounded in community, collective experience, and social context. Such an approach acknowledges that mental health is not merely a personal issue but a societal one, deeply intertwined with the community’s overall well-being (Zapata, 2020).

Healing Generational Wounds: Integrating Ancestral Work and Intergenerational Trauma Work

Another pivotal component of decolonizing mental health is incorporating ancestral and intergenerational trauma work in therapy. These practices strive to address and heal the historical traumas carried forward through generations, leading toward collective healing that benefits both the individual and the community (Mullan in Zapata, 2020).

Exploring Diverse Healing Practices: Indigenous Spirit Work, Yoga, Shamanism, and Beyond

Finally, we must be open to exploring various therapeutic methods in our pursuit of decolonized mental health care. This includes practices like Indigenous spirit work, yoga, shamanism, and other culturally grounded therapeutic techniques. By integrating these diverse methods into our therapy sessions, we can better respect and respond to the unique needs and experiences of those impacted by colonization and oppression (Zapata, 2020).

To summarize, here are some practical steps to consider in your pursuit of decolonizing mental health:

  • Acknowledge and educate yourself on the historical and ongoing trauma of colonization and oppression.
  • Shift your focus from individualistic to community-centred mental health approaches.
  • Incorporate ancestral work and intergenerational trauma work into your therapeutic practices.
  • Be open to learning and integrating diverse therapeutic methods, such as Indigenous spirit work, yoga, shamanism, etc.

The path may be fraught with complexities and challenges in this ongoing journey toward decolonization. However, the reward — a more equitable, inclusive, and culturally respectful mental health system — will undeniably be worth the effort. So, as we continue to learn and grow, let’s commit to creating a mental health landscape that acknowledges, respects, and serves all individuals in their full cultural and historical contexts.

White Allies in the Decolonization Process: Active Engagement and Responsibility

The responsibility of decolonization is not an isolated task left to marginalized communities alone. On the contrary, it calls for collective action, necessitating white allies’ active involvement and commitment. Partners who, as beneficiaries of the existing power structures, bear a special responsibility to challenge the status quo and dismantle oppressive systems.

Acknowledging Unearned Privilege: Understanding White Responsibility in Decolonization

As a starting point, white individuals must honestly appraise their privileged positions within society. By recognizing the unearned advantages conferred by the systemic power dynamics that perpetuate colonialism, white allies can better understand how they inadvertently contribute to the marginalization of others. This recognition of privilege isn’t intended to induce guilt but rather to inspire action and foster a commitment to disrupt these unjust systems (Lipp, 2022).

Embracing Active Allyship: Practical Steps for White Allies

Active allyship entails more than empathetic understanding; it involves tangible action. Below are some recommended steps white allies can undertake to support the decolonization process:

  • Educational Investment: Begin by actively educating yourself about the histories, cultures, and experiences of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities. This self-education is the foundation upon which all other steps are built.
  • Amplifying Marginalized Voices: Use your platforms to amplify the voices of marginalized individuals, ensuring their narratives and perspectives are heard.
  • Challenging Oppressive Structures and Beliefs: Actively challenge the oppressive systems, beliefs, and biases that perpetuate inequality, both in your personal and professional life.
  • Engaging in Critical Self-Reflection: Routinely question and evaluate your assumptions and biases, engaging in the continuous process of unlearning and relearning.
  • Supporting Indigenous and Marginalized Leadership: Actively support and uplift the leadership of Indigenous and other marginalized communities in the decolonization process, recognizing their authority and expertise (Lipp, 2022).

Taking these steps signals a commitment to stand beside marginalized communities in the fight against systemic oppression, thus playing a significant role in creating a more equitable world. Decolonization is a shared responsibility, one that requires the efforts of all members of society to realize fully. Therefore, as we continue our journey toward decolonization, let’s do so with a spirit of solidarity and shared commitment to justice, respect, and equality.

A Rallying Call for Decolonization: From Mental Health to Society at Large

Decolonization is a crucial endeavour that extends far beyond mental health. Unravelling the complex threads of colonization deeply woven into our societal fabric is a necessary stride toward creating a more just and equitable world. The exploration of Victoria Day’s colonial roots, alongside the uncovering of mental health practices, illustrates the indispensability of the decolonization process in liberating us from oppressive systems (Ansloos, 2021; Zapata, 2020; Lipp, 2022).

Why Decolonization Matters: Reevaluating Systems, Beliefs, and Structures

Decolonization is an all-encompassing task, touching every aspect of our lives. It invites us to critically examine the prevailing structures, systems, and beliefs that uphold colonialism and perpetuate harm. However, this undertaking goes beyond mere introspection—it demands that we actively challenge and dismantle these systems while centring the voices and experiences of marginalized communities (Ansloos, 2021; Zapata, 2020; Lipp, 2022).

The Journey Toward Decolonization: A Collective Effort

The pursuit of decolonization is a shared journey. It calls for the engagement and participation of everyone, urging us to embark on a continual cycle of learning and unlearning while driving change. Our collective efforts can shape a society embodying inclusivity, equity, and liberation (Ansloos, 2021; Zapata, 2020; Lipp, 2022).

Embracing the Decolonization Mandate: A Personal and Professional Endeavor

As mental health professionals, we bear a special responsibility to integrate the principles of decolonization into our practices. This duty begins with continuous self-reflection and critique of the pervasive influence of colonization and oppressive systems within our professional conduct. Such a journey calls for unwavering introspection, where we dissect our biases, question our assumptions, and expose any hidden colonial legacies that may inadvertently influence our interactions with clients (Zapata, 2020).

Advocacy for Change: Open Dialogue, Education, and Action

To effect change, we must champion the cause of decolonization across multiple platforms. Advocacy isn’t merely about endorsing decolonization—it’s about fostering a conducive environment for dialogue, education, and meaningful action across various sectors. These engagements range from discussions with fellow mental health professionals, educators, and policymakers; to open conversations with the communities, we aim to serve (Zapata, 2020).

A Decolonized Mental Health System: For the Benefit of All

Decolonizing mental health practices may initially seem to benefit only the historically oppressed communities. However, such a paradigm shift can significantly enhance the well-being of all individuals, irrespective of their racial or cultural backgrounds (Zapata, 2020).

Embracing Diversity: Towards an Oppression-focused Perspective

Decolonization involves a fundamental shift towards an oppression-focused perspective in mental health. By acknowledging the systemic oppression’s role in mental health outcomes, we foster a more nuanced understanding of mental health issues, offering comprehensive and effective care.

Inclusivity in Practice: Honoring Diverse Healing Traditions

Decolonization also champions the integration of diverse healing practices into mental health care. Moving beyond Western-centric therapeutic methods, we validate and respect the richness of various healing traditions across cultures. This inclusivity allows personalized care that caters to an individual’s unique needs.

Recognizing the Value of Community Knowledge

A decolonized mental health system places significant value on community knowledge and lived experiences. By honouring these resources, we enrich our understanding of mental health, grounding our solutions in the realities of those we aim to help.

Prioritizing Equity: Addressing the Needs of the Marginalized

Lastly, decolonization underscores the importance of centring the needs of marginalized communities within mental health services. This approach fosters a more equitable mental health system responsive to its diverse clientele’s unique needs.

In essence, decolonization in mental health care isn’t just an initiative for some—it’s a stride towards better care for everyone. As we commit to creating an inclusive, equitable, and comprehensive mental health system, we contribute to a healthier society and improved mental health outcomes for all.

Looking Ahead: Navigating the Path to Decolonizing Mental Health

As we continue to navigate the path to decolonization, we must acknowledge its implications across research, practice, and policy. Moreover, this exploration isn’t a singular event—it’s a lifelong journey that requires constant learning and adaptation.

Bridging the Gap: Research, Practice, and Policy

The ongoing commitment to decolonize mental health necessitates further research, particularly in understanding the deep-seated intergenerational trauma stemming from colonization and its impacts on mental health. This journey invites collaboration between researchers, practitioners, and communities to create culturally sensitive and trauma-informed interventions, promoting healing and well-being (Zapata, 2020).

Advocacy at the policy level is paramount—it demands systemic changes that uplift and center the voices and needs of marginalized communities. Strides in this direction include developing culturally appropriate mental health services, enhancing funding for community-led initiatives, and confronting the social determinants of mental health through a decolonial lens (Zapata, 2020).

Embrace Your Role in Decolonization: A Call for Active Engagement

As you ponder the insights and discussions in this article, we encourage you to reflect on your role in decolonization. Recognize and leverage your privilege to uplift marginalized voices and advocate for equal access to culturally responsive care (Zapata, 2020).

Your engagement with decolonization involves continual education, introspection, and actionable steps. Extend your knowledge by exploring various resources, engaging in enlightening dialogues with peers and community members, and actively supporting initiatives promoting mental health decolonization.

Forging a Better Future: A Collective Commitment to Change

In conclusion, as we embrace the tenets of decolonization and strive towards a more inclusive and liberating mental health system, we bolster healing, resilience, and well-being for all. The transformation we seek hinges on our collective efforts. Let’s continue to sow the seeds of change, paving the way toward a more equitable and just future.

References

Ansloos, J. (2021). Colonialism, coloniality, and Victoria Day in Canada: A relational-psychopolitical approach to decolonizing and rehumanizing. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 62(2), 137-148. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-doesnt-get-more-colonial-than-victoria-day-how-an-indigenous-firm/

Zapata, K. (2020). Decolonizing mental health: The importance of an oppression-focused mental health system. The Calgary Journal. Retrieved from https://calgaryjournal.ca/2020/02/27/decolonizing-mental-health-the-importance-of-an-oppression-focused-mental-health-system/

Lipp, S. (2022). White people show up: The Role of white folks in anti-racist work. HuffPost. Retrieved from the Web.

Further Reading

Block, P. (2016). Occupying Disability: Critical Approaches To Community, Justice, And Decolonizing Disability. Springer/Sci-Tech/Trade.

Linklater, R. (2013). Decolonizing Global Mental Health: The Psychiatrization Of The Majority World. Routledge.

Mills, C. (2014). Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies. Fernwood Publishing.

Mullan, J. (2023). Decolonizing Therapy: Oppression, Historical Trauma, and Politicizing Your Practice. WW Norton.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre manages a group practice of three close-knit queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.