Improving the relationship between psychology and Indigenous Peoples

By Greg Duck Posted: November 6, 2018 1:00 p.m.

Clinical psychology graduate students (L to R) Nichole Faller, Rhonda Stopyn, Melissa Wuerch, and Seint Kokokyi are recipients of the Friends of Meitheal Award.
Clinical psychology graduate students (L to R) Nichole Faller, Rhonda Stopyn, Melissa Wuerch, and Seint Kokokyi are recipients of the Friends of Meitheal Award. UR External Relations

Four clinical psychology graduate students have been awarded for their work with Indigenous Peoples.

Rhonda Stopyn, Melissa Wuerch, Seint Kokokyi, and Nichole Faller were awarded the Friends of Meitheal Award. Presented by the Meitheal Team, based in Saskatoon, the award was created for those answering the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and helping to improve the relationship between psychology and Indigenous Peoples. This award is in recognition of the work they did as part of their clinical placement at the Randall Kinship Centre, Child and Youth Services, located in Regina. During their placement, the four-student team continually demonstrated their commitment to learning about Indigenous culture through teachings and ceremonies.

“We are so overwhelmed by the award. It totally took us by surprise!” said Faller.

Clinical psychology is a branch of psychology concerned with assessment and intervention of mental, emotional, and behavioural disorders. For a clinical placement, students complete a four-to-eight-month program where they apply in a hands-on manner the assessment and intervention skills they learned in the classroom.

“You can read all of the books and practise all you want, but once there is a child in front of you, you have to learn to adapt in the moment,” said Kokokyi.

The placement at Randall Kinship Centre allowed the students to work with families experiencing behavioural and mental health issues. The clients they worked with were often from vulnerable or underserved populations that faced barriers to accessing services.

 “Our clients have been our biggest teachers. We learn so much from them in so many different ways,” said Stopyn.

Under the supervision of Dr. Bruce Gordon, the four students were offered many opportunities to work and learn from Indigenous Peoples to better understand their experiences and culture. The Randall Kinship Centre, at the time of the students’ placement, had two Elders, a knowledge keeper, and staff trained in providing culturally-affirming services to Indigenous Peoples. Kokokyi and Faller jumped at the opportunity to attend a workshop to learn how to facilitate talking circles.

In Indigenous culture, a talking circle is akin to a problem-solving forum. It involves four rounds, where the person holding the Grandfather rock introduces themselves, discusses what brought them there, what the topic is, and share what they will do tomorrow as a result of the discussion.  Everyone who participates listens respectfully to the person speaking, and is able to speak openly in a judgement-free environment.

“It’s very deep and emotional,” said Wuerch. “A talking circle is a very moving and heartwarming experience.”

In order to facilitate a talking circle, one needs to complete training and receive the blessing of an Elder. Having received their blessing, Kokokyi and Faller acknowledge how important the practice of talking circles can be within their field, and hope to spread its influence beyond Indigenous communities.

“This is a tried and true practice that has been used by Indigenous communities for centuries. We are honoured to have received the training and blessing to be able to use it,” said Faller.

The students hope to make use of talking circles as part of their learning experience, imagining the practice being used to supplement their classroom education.

"We now have an understanding of how talking circles are an important part of Indigenous culture. As Canadians learning and working within the field of clinical psychology, we can see talking circles becoming invaluable to the work we do," said Kokokyi.