Institute for Complementary and Indigenous Mental Health Research

Enjoying the Pacific Northwest 2022  (Image Courtesy of Taryn Leech Photography)

The Institute for Complementary and Indigenous Mental Health Research (ICIMHR) was created to address the domination of western perspectives and practices in mental health research. 

Our mission is to serve as a network of mental health researchers and practitioners to offer healing resources to communities and decolonize mental health services by exploring and presenting culturally appropriate and humanizing practices that support individual and community wellbeing.

Several years ago, Dr. Scharff gave a presentation on best-practices in mental health treatment in South Africa. When she was done, one of the doctors in the room said, “Thank you for your presentation, but we don’t have the resources to implement anything you’ve talked about, and people here don’t generally trust psychotherapists.” Dr. Scharff immediately asked, “Do you ever work with traditional healers?” A great conversation ensued about the value of local resources and community-based practices, and the Institute for Complementary and Indigenous Mental Health Research was born. 

Though complementary and indigenous practices have been shown to be effective and offer a wide range of resources to people from all walks of life, as well as provide important opportunities for healing to individuals in under-served populations, these activities are largely unavailable to those who use western mental health services or need to use insurance to cover the cost of mental healthcare. This includes indigenous populations in the United States and Canada, whose culturally-based mental health practices are often not included in the dominant mental health system.

The Institute (ICIMHR) is a global consortium of mental health researchers and practitioners who are using or researching complementary or indigenous mental health practices in communities around the world. These may include culturally-based activities, yoga (including breathwork), music, narrative activities (using story to change perspective), somatic experiencing, dance and theater, meditation and mindfulness, and other activities that are locally based and culturally appropriate. The choice of activities is based on the cultural identity of the client and are most impactful when implemented by a practitioner with whom the client can identify.

Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) caregiver presentation, Tacoma, WA 2018

The network uses referrals as a bulwark against cultural appropriation. No single practitioner can or should deliver all practices. Rather, those with the appropriate skill and experience should provide the resources they are best-suited to give.

This work is highly collaborative in nature. No single resource or cultural perspective is endorsed. Rather, the group networks to provide resources and support for a wide range of practices and research, and to open doors to inclusion and research for non-Western activities of promise. We connect scholars and practitioners to further their self-defined goals. The Institute’s objective is to provide more opportunities for healing to more people around the world. 

Dr. Scharff’s work centers at the intersection of addiction and trauma. By applying the latest research in psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and complementary/whole health practices to addiction and trauma recovery, Dr. Scharff has seen dramatic improvements in treatment outcomes at the facilities with which she partners. These outcomes lay the foundation for long-term addiction and trauma recovery. In her addresses and books, Dr. Scharff outlines what these protocols are. She reveals how a variety of treatment practices, when used together on a highly individualized basis, work synergistically to improve treatment results. At its foundation, a dynamic treatment process rewires the brain, allowing people to lead satisfying, engaged lives.

Scientific advances in a range of fields including applied psychology, meditation and mindfulness, music, art, somatic experiencing, and neuroscience, among others, have collectively been used to create some of the greatest breakthroughs in addiction and trauma treatment in this century. These new understandings of how the brain and psyche work have revolutionized our knowledge of mental health treatment. By adding complementary and culturally appropriate indigenous practices to our treatment programs, we can radically improve treatment outcomes — which ultimately means people leading healthier lives.

Radio interview on complementary mental health practices, Wisconsin 2021

Institute scholars and practitioners want to be clear that not everyone needs to be in a treatment program to learn new ways to improve their mental health. There are many activities that people can use to decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and overall mental dis-ease. Many complementary, whole health practices, including but not limited to acupuncture, naturopathy, meditation, yoga, social connection (e.g. volunteering), music, breathwork, mentorship, and outdoor experiences can improve wellbeing. Some of these activities are no- or low-cost and can be learned through community programs, or even on YouTube. These activities also circumvent the stigma around receiving treatment for mental health concerns. Though none of these activities on its own is a solution to mental health problems, their inclusion in a healthy lifestyle most definitely improves wellbeing and outlook on life.

This is a global network of researchers and practitioners. Inquiries from individuals and organizations are welcome.