What role do spiritual, cultural, and indigenous practices play in psychotherapy for the people of American Samoa and New Zealand? That question brought Professor G. E. Kawika Allen in the counseling psychology doctorate program of the McKay School, Hoku Conklin,PhD, of BYU Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Polynesian American Psychology Research (Poly Psi) team to those South Pacific locations this summer.
The two-week trip in June was an opportunity for the Poly Psi Team to investigate spiritual, cultural, and indigenous methods of healing in psychotherapy. To do so, the team interviewed therapists and set up a one-year research project collecting data from therapists and clients, met with the director of public health and his staff in American Samoa, and worked with medical professionals, physicians, nurses, social workers, and psychologists during their visit.
Week One: American Samoa
“In American Samoa, they are a very religious group of people,” said Allen. “Religion and spirituality are infused in their way of life and lifestyle every day.”
Upon arrival on the island of Aunu’u in American Samoa, the powerful traditions and cultural practices of the people were immediately observed as the team was welcomed with a traditional Ava ceremony by a village chief Peter Taliva’a. The team also learned about psychological and physical herbal remedies used to improve well-being among the community. “What a beautiful cultural experience for our students that they will never forget,” said Allen.
“When we got there, they had stocked our fridges and pantries with food,” said Jason Lefrandt, a counseling psychology PhD student. “They truly appreciated us and showed their aloha and love for us. I will never forget that.”
While on the island, the Poly Psi Team was busy doing presentations and research training for psychotherapists, physicians, nurses, and medical administrative staff. The conversations surrounded cultural-specific strategies and interventions for psychotherapy with Pacific Islanders, specifically Samoans. These productive meetings also allowed the colleagues from American Samoa to share unique aspects to consider in clinical practices with the team.
Additionally, the Poly Psi Team had the opportunity to do a fireside workshop for one of the local stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The fireside focused on understanding and getting help for depression.
Of course, the team also made time for some fun. A cultural excursion to Aunu’u was a perfect way to take in all the beauty of the culture, land, and pristine sea.
The American Samoa trip ended with a presentation of preliminary findings to Motusa Tuileama Nua, the director of public health of American Samoa.
Week Two: New Zealand
The week in New Zealand also began with a memorable cultural experience. “The Poly Psi Team learned so much from our Auckland University of Technology (AUT) friends and Polynesian colleagues as we were able to meet in a traditional Maori greeting ceremony in the sacred marae,” said Allen. “Our hearts were unified as we exchanged our ancestral lines and personal histories.”
The presentations the team made highlighted the importance of placing cultural connections and spiritual identities at the forefront of therapeutic healing practices. This reinforced what the Maori therapists and practitioners have been doing all along, which was an inspiring connection between the groups.
“Our colleagues were enthusiastic about the need for relevant research that supports what indigenous peoples are doing to help heal communities,” Allen commented.
One of the most exciting aspects of this trip was establishing strong relationships with colleagues at AUT, as Allen observed, “There is so much to do within this area of our collective work, and we are thrilled that a relationship has been developed for future collaborations.”
The final day of the trip immersed the team in profound talanoa and korero (conversations) while they stayed the night in Rotorua, one of the many remaining full-time working maraes—a communal or sacred place—in New Zealand. They learned about and immersed themselves in the beautiful indigenous Maori culture.
“We know that psychology as a discipline is embedded in certain cultural values,” said Conklin. “We’re hoping as we go through this that we can better understand some of those cultural frameworks and how to integrate them in a way that we can make counseling and psychotherapy [accessible].”
“I learned that psychological healing and health mean different things for different cultures,” said Lisa Scott, a counseling psychology PhD student. “I cannot assume that as a U.S. trained psychologist I will understand how to help anyone in the world until I understand their culture and worldview.”
Polynesian cultures make a fascinating fusion with psychotherapy that has the potential to help many people who are currently not getting the culture-centered treatment they need. “I learned that access to mental health care is not always available for people,” said Bango Gancinia, a counseling psychology PhD student. “I recognized the need for psychoeducation and outreach and how helpful it is for members of the community to understand the resources available to them.”
The work of the Poly Psi team on this trip and beyond is forming productive conversations around this topic and providing hope for the future.
To learn more about the Poly Psi Team and their work, visit .
Writer: Jake Gulisane
Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922