By VERONICA JOURDAIN
Santa Fe””The Institute of American Indian Arts is a unique environment, encompassing people from all walks of life as well as tribes from all over the land. It is no surprise, then, that the counseling approaches here are as unique as the people being counseled.
IAIA Counselor Greer McSpadden, a licensed independent social worker, stressed the importance of family and extended family in Native communities and how closely this affects the students who come to see her.
According to McSpadden, there are two types of students who use the counseling services at school: the self-referred and those who are referred from outside sources, such as in disciplinary actions.
Self-referred clients come to her with a wide array of problems from issues with depression and anxiety to the more scholastic problems of time management, homesickness, and inability to concentrate.
Some also come for relationship problems, either with their significant other or a roommate who isn’t working out, and some just come to talk.
A Strength Based Approach
McSpadden is a family therapist who has worked with Native people””including her own Cherokee tribe””throughout her life. She believes in a strength-based therapy, and working within the student’s academic environment.
Strength based therapy is based upon the idea that no person is a mere individual, that we have all been heavily influenced, both for the good and for the bad, by our own families and the environments we grew up in.
Strength based therapy then seeks to map out a person’s background and see what sort of “talents, experiences, vocations, family stories, and traditional stories” lie in their family tree that they might use to build upon their own latent strengths.
McSpadden’s approach is to map out student’s families, sometimes as far back as three generations. It is, she says, “more or less family history that shows things in their family that they’re proud of.”
“I look at the whole family””look at them (clients) within their family and communities,” says McSpadden. “It’s how clinical social work is different from psychology.”
“Our very first concern is confidentiality,” Greer says. “Without confidentiality, there is no trust.”
Since a large chunk of Native people’s self identification is wrapped up in their tribal affiliation (seeing themselves as tribal members first and foremost), that is included in therapy dynamics, as well.
“You wouldn’t get that outside of here,” says Greer.
Using A Student’s Point Of Reference
One of the challenges, according to Dr. James Jordan, is in learning the underlying value system of Native people and how they respond to counseling in an individual setting. Dr. Jordan, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology, is the director of counseling at IAIA and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Acculturation and fear of being acculturated is also a factor in counseling Native peoples. “We will either accept the value system of another world view in counseling or we say we don’t want to follow the ”˜white’ perspective,” explained Dr. Jordan.
“This is honored, but it makes things harder, and then we must look to their (tribal) models,” said Dr. Jordan. “The best method in such a case is to refer them to their own system.” This would include medicine men and village elders.
Another informal form of grief therapy is the fire ceremonies that occur after a student passes away. This is a more traditional practice and is spearheaded by Carmen Henan, the dean of student life, and her staff, but is often attended by the counselors, who also provide wood, food and open doors to students who may need extra support through their grieving process.
Features Of The Counseling Program
Here is a short list of some of the services provided by IAIA’s counseling program:
”¢ Individual Counseling
”¢ Addictions Counseling
”¢ Grief Counseling
”¢ Couple’s Counseling
”¢ Family Therapy
”¢ They sponsor a sweat lodge ceremony on campus.
The ceremonies are led by elders of different tribes, and while most sweats are currently coed, they are working on establishing a women’s sweat, since in some tribes it is actually taboo for women and men to sweat together.
”¢ They sponsor The People’s Path, a psycho-educational alcohol and drug awareness group. It meets every Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:00pm and it is open to everyone.
While there is no percentage available, there is reportedly a lot of drinking in the dorms and probably a lot of marijuana use, as well. The only students they are sure of are the ones who get caught. There may be a lot more use that they are not aware of.
”¢ “As needed” group therapy is also an option.
Last year, a group for Native vets was attempted. If there is a greater need for a specific demographic like Native vets, they’ll put a support group into motion.
In addition to these features, McSpadden has been taking part in some of the clubs on campus, in order to make herself more accessible to students and also to try and remove some of the stigma associated with counseling.
“Everyone needs counseling at some point in their lives,” McSpadden says. “It is not a privilege everyone has. We’re trying to normalize counseling.”
Copyright © IAIA Chronicle 2010