Compared to traditional Western views about counseling, the multicultural-social justice movement promotes very different ways of thinking about mental health, psychological development and the important roles counselors can play in fostering these concepts. The issue of trauma is an excellent example. Significant differences exist in the way many traditionally trained counselors think about trauma and the manner in which culturally competent counselors conceptualize the meaning of this term and the roles they can play in addressing the needs of traumatized clients.

One of the most respected multicultural experts in the mental health professions today is Eduardo Duran, and he presents a very different view of trauma. He describes trauma from an American Indian viewpoint in his book Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling With American Indians and Other Native Peoples (Teachers College Press, 2006).

Some counselors are likely to dismiss the manner in which Duran describes trauma and the approaches that can be used to effectively deal with this experience. Nevertheless, we have written this month’s column to help expand the thinking of counselors who remain open to new ways of thinking about trauma and different approaches to addressing this experience from a multicultural-social justice perspective.

Culturally different approaches

In discussing issues related to mental health in general and trauma in particular, Duran emphasizes the American Indian belief in holism. This perspective includes directing particular attention to the important interconnections that are thought to exist between a person’s mind, body and spirit, as well as one’s connections with the larger cultural community and environment to which she/he is a part. Although space restrictions limit our ability to address these issues in much detail, we want to illuminate several central points about the American Indian perspective of holistic interconnectedness and harmony as they relate to the problem of trauma.

As Duran points out, healthy human development is intimately linked to the holistic and harmonious mind-body-spirit connections that individuals can realize in their lives. Thus, unlike traditional Western counseling theories that focus on the manner in which traumatic events adversely impact a client’s mental and physical state of being, this American Indian perspective emphasizes the need to attend to the ways that traumatic events disrupt a person’s mental, physical and spiritual life forces. This perspective further suggests that traumatized clients commonly exhibit problems in their lives because some recent or historic event has fractured the harmonious interconnections believed to naturally exist between their mind, body and spirit.

The emphasis placed on ensuring that individuals’ spiritual energy is in harmony with their mental and physical life forces is an important consideration that distinguishes American Indian psychology from most traditional Western counseling theories. Duran’s writing directs particular attention to the ways in which traumatic events inflict “a wounding on the soul.” This phenomenon is referred to as the “soul wound.”

A second important concept asserted in the theory of the soul wound relates to what Duran calls “historical and intergenerational trauma.” This trauma involves the recognition that horrifically violent experiences inflicted on individuals in the past result in unhealthy outcomes that are passed on to one’s offspring and manifested in future generations.

Duran notes that the past genocide of American Indians represents the sort of historical violence that results in intergenerational trauma. Briefly stated, this means that the horrific physical suffering, death, psychological harm and soul wounding that occurred during the genocide continues to be experienced today by many persons of American Indian descent. Multicultural-social justice counseling theorists and researchers suggest that the disproportionately high levels of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide among American Indians today is partially due to a failure to heal the soul wound that was transmitted intergenerationally as a result of the historic trauma that their ancestors experienced.

Duran encourages mental health practitioners to address three levels of interventions when working with people who are suffering from trauma:

  • Working with individual clients who are experiencing problems due to trauma
  • Providing outreach, advocacy and healing services to the larger community of which the client is a part
  • Engaging in efforts that are aimed at what he calls “healing the land”

New professional roles and services

Unlike traditionally trained counselors, who are encouraged primarily to address the psychological and physical manifestations of trauma, culturally competent counselors are sensitive to the importance of addressing traumatized clients’ spiritual needs as well. The concept of the soul wound and the helping strategies that Duran outlines provide counselors with a broad range of practical interventions that can be used to promote more harmonious mind-body-spirit connections with traumatized clients in individual counseling settings.

Duran also describes working with the broader cultural community as a vital component of trauma counseling. This requires counselors to be willing to implement advocacy, consultation and social change services aimed at fostering a greater level of justice among those individuals who continue to be subjected to the sort of historic trauma that American Indians have experienced in this country.

Finally, Duran discusses the importance of counselors working to “heal the land.” He emphasizes the American Indian belief in the vital interconnections that exist among all animate beings and inanimate entities, as well as the spiritual energetic connections that exist between all people and Mother Earth. He further notes that the current trauma being inflicted on the Earth by our collective polluting and poisoning of the global environment has a significantly negative and traumatizing impact on our own mental health and sense of psychological well-being. From this perspective, counselors are encouraged to consider how the role of environmental activist is linked to the work that counselors can do to address the various forms of trauma experienced by millions of people in contemporary society.

Clearly, the ideas presented in this cultural perspective of trauma counseling are very different from those used in many counselor education training programs and professional development workshops. Space limitations restrict the presentation of these concepts to a very rudimentary discussion. For this reason, we encourage readers interested in obtaining more detailed information about an American Indian view of trauma and the types of culturally sensitive counseling strategies being used to address this problem to check out Duran’s book, Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling With American Indians and Other Native Peoples.