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The Role of Traditional Healers in Health Promotion, Counselling, and Education


Study Background  |  Study Methods  |  Research  |  Selected References


This research project has been undertaken by Roy Moodley, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and several graduate student researchers. It is sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Its goal is to collect and study traditional healers’ stories and descriptions of the ways in which they provide counseling, health promotion, and education to several ethnic minority communities in Toronto, Canada. We believe the results will help to build understanding and facilitate collaboration between traditional healers and more mainstream health practitioners.


Study Background

Traditional healing practices have existed in many or most cultures since their beginnings as a culture. However, some of these practices were forced to become hidden during colonial times or during an immigrant community’s early stages of living in the West.

Today, traditional healing practices such as Ayurveda, Shamanism, Spiritism, and many others are re-emerging in large North American and European cities, and are being practiced alongside contemporary Western forms of counselling and healthcare. These forms of traditional healing generally include a system of classifying and explaining illness and distress, as well as ideas about the best treatment for particular problems.

Evidence suggests that traditional healers in the West are visited by people both from their own cultural/ethnic communities and from other cultural groups. Members of immigrant communities may a) seek the help of a traditional healer instead of seeing a Western doctor or counsellor; b) go to a Western doctor or counsellor for certain illnesses/problems but to a traditional healer for others; or c) seek help from both Western and traditional practitioners for the same problem.

There are many reasons that a member of an ethnic minority community might go to a traditional healer instead of a Western doctor or counsellor. For instance, Western mental health practices like therapy might be seen as ineffective, or not suitable for particular types of problems. A person might be intimidated or mistrustful of Western practitioners, or there may be no services offered in his/her first language. Traditional healers are qualified and legitimate within their communities and are the first (and sometimes only) resource to which many immigrant Canadians turn for their healthcare and psychological/emotional needs.

Canada as a nation is becoming increasingly multicultural; it is therefore important for healthcare practitioners to become familiar with, and to respect, indigenous healing practices. Such an understanding will equip practitioners to consult and collaborate with traditional healers, and to help their clients connect with these healers when appropriate.


Study Methods

In order to gain an understanding of traditional healers and their practice, we are interviewing healers from Caribbean, South Asian, and African cultural groups (10 healers from each group). We are also looking at some contemporary forms of traditional practices such as Ayurveda, meditation, and yoga, and how practitioners who are not from a South Asian culture practice these healing methods. All of the healers we are interviewing live and practice in Toronto and the surrounding area.

Because many of these healers are excluded from mainstream healthcare and “hidden” within their cultural communities, we have sought them out by personal networking within the communities – for instance, by attending religious services or contacting community leaders. We are trying to interview one man and one woman healer from each tradition, but this is not always possible.

The interview itself covers six main topics: reasons for becoming a healer, the type of people who are treated (i.e. patient or client groups), the process of healing, the healer’s training and practice, his or her role in health promotion and education, and his or her relationship to practitioners of Western approaches to health care. We will analyze our results using grounded theory methods, to identify themes that emerge from the interviews.

We anticipate that this research project will pave the way for collaborations that can help counsellors better meet the needs of Caribbean, South Asian, and African communities in Canada.



Roy Moodley, Ph.D. (Principal Investigator)

Aanchal Rai completed an M.A. in the Counselling Psychology program at OISE/UT. Her research focuses on the role of South Asian traditional healers in Western forms of counselling. She specializes in counselling with multicultural populations, and her research has helped provide insight into the role of healers in the lives of immigrant populations in Toronto and the GTA.

Patsy Sutherland is a doctoral student in Counselling Psychology at OISE/UT. Her research and publication interests span critical multicultural counselling, transgenerational trauma in the context of slavery and the colonial encounter, and traditional healing practices and the integration of such practices into psychological treatment. Her work involves a particular focus on the Caribbean region.

Maya Hammer completed an M.A. in Counselling Psychology under the supervision of Roy Moodley. Her research interests include integrating traditional, complementary, and alternative medicine into counselling and psychotherapy. Previous to pursuing her master’s degree, Maya completed a diploma in Ayurvedic Medicine at the Ayurvedic Institute and worked as a yoga instructor. She received her yoga teaching certificate from Kripalu and a completed training in Phoenix Rising yoga therapy.

Karen Ross is an M.A. student whose research interests include the role of spirituality and religious beliefs within the counselling process.

Alexander Asamoah

Edna Aryee

Saadia Akram Pall


Selected References

Aarons, D. E. (1999). Medicine and its alternatives: Health care priorities in the Caribbean. The Hastings Center Report, 29(4), 23-27.

Ali, O. M., Milstein, G., & and Marzuk, P. M. (2005). The Imam’s role in meeting the counseling needs of Muslim communities in the United States. Psychiatric Services, 56(2), 202-205.

Constantine, M. G., Myers, L. J., Kindaichi, M., & Moore, J. L. I. (2004). Exploring indigenous mental health practices: The roles of healers and helpers in promoting well-being in people of color. Counseling and Values, 48(2), 110-125.

Dein, S., & Sembhi, S. (2001). The use of traditional healing in South Asian psychiatric patients in the U.K.: Interactions between professional and folk psychiatries. Transcultural Psychiatry, 38(2), 243-257.

Farooqi, Y. N. (2006). Traditional healing practices sought by Muslim psychiatric patients in Lahore, Pakistan. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 53(4), 401-415.

Fernandez Olmos, M. (2003). Creole religions of the Caribbean: An introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press.

Harrison, L. J., Manoch, R., & Rubia, K. (2004). Sahaja Yoga Meditation as a family treatment programme for children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 9(4), 479-497.

Laguerre, M. S. (1987). Afro-Caribbean Folk Medicine. Bergin & Garvey Publishers.
Lee, C. C., & Armstrong, K. L. (1995). Indigenous models of mental health intervention: Lessons from traditional healers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mamtani, R., & Cimino, A. (2002). A primer of complementary and alternative medicine and its relevance in the treatment of mental health problems. Psychiatric Quarterly, 73(4), 367-381.

McRae, M. B., Carey, P. M., & Anderson-Scott, R. (1998). Black churches as therapeutic systems: A group process perspective. Health Education & Behaviour, 25(6), 778-789.

Miller, N. L. (2000). Haitian ethnomedical systems and biomedical practitioners: Directions for clinicians. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 11(3), 204-211.

Moodley, R., & West, W. (2005). Integrating traditional healing practices into counselling and psychotherapy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Nelms, L. W., & Gorski, J. (2006). The role of the African traditional healer in women’s health. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 17(2), 184-189.

Nicolas, G., DeSilva, A. M., Grey, K. S., & Gonzalez-Eastep, D. (2006). Using a multicultural lens to understand illnesses among Haitians living in America. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(6), 702-707.

Sandoval, M. C. (1979). Santeria as a mental health care system: A historical overview. Social Science and Medicine, 13B, 137-151.

Vontress, C. E. (1999). Interview with a traditional African healer. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 21(4), 326-336.

Young, J. L., Griffith, E. E., & Williams, D. R. (2003). The integral role of pastoral counseling by African-American clergy in community mental health. Psychiatric Services, 54(5), 688-692.