Feds spend hundreds of thousands on “talking circles” to fight alcoholism


The National Institutes of Health has awarded Washington State University more than a quarter of a million dollars to create “talking circles” to fight alcoholism.

The grant was awarded to the university earlier this year to fund a study of the Native American practice of people sitting in a circle, listening “with their heart” and using a talking stick to speak, The Washington Free Beacon reported.

The project, entitled “Randomized Clinical Trial of Harm Reduction Talking Circles for Urban American Indians and Alaska Natives with Alcohol Use Disorders,” does not request that alcoholic participants drink less, but will “accept people where they’re at.”

“Alcohol-use disorders (AUDs) are a serious public health issue for urban American Indians and Alaska Natives,” according to the grant for the study. “They have twice the levels of AUDs and alcohol problems of urban non-Hispanic whites. Unfortunately, the most widely available treatment option—abstinence-based treatment—is generally ineffective in engaging and successfully treating this underserved population.”

In an effort to persuade Native Americans to drink less, the study proposes using talking circles as a “non-abstinence-based harm-reduction approach with Native cultural practices.”

“A talking circle is a gathering of people with a common concern who respectfully share their perspectives and ‘listen with their heart’ while each individual speaks,” the grant read. “Traditionally, talking circles have been used to address community problems, heal individuals from trauma, and bring about community harmony.”

The study, which began in February, will involve at least 280 patients in Seattle with “lived experience” of alcohol use disorder. To date, the project has received $269,947 in funding from taxpayers.

According to the researchers, the study is “cost-effective.”

“We expect that [Harm Reduction Talking Circles] HaRTC participants will show greater improvements on alcohol outcomes and quality of life compared to control participants and that the intervention will be cost-effective and sustainable,” read the grant. “We also expect HaRTC participants will show increased engagement in AI/AN cultural practices and community events, which will be evaluated as a potential mediator of the HaRTC effect.”

Mi’kmaw Spirituality contended that a talking circle is a “very effective way to remove barriers and to allow people to express themselves with complete freedom.”

“The symbolism of the circle, with no beginning and with nobody in a position of prominence, serves to encourage people to speak freely and honestly about things that are on their minds,” the Mi’kmaw website states.

The talking circle is intended to be “compassionate, nonjudgmental and culturally sensitive,” and participants will not be implored to drink less.

“The umbrella term ‘harm reduction’ comprises a set of evidence-based, patient-centered approaches that might suit the treatment preferences of urban AI/ANs with AUDs,” the grant application states. “Harm reduction entails a compassionate, nonjudgmental provider stance that affords people respect and the autonomy needed to forge their own paths toward minimizing alcohol-related harm and improving [quality of life] QoL.”

“It focuses on ‘accepting people where they’re at’ and avoids pathologizing or placing moral value on alcohol use,” the application stated.

In addition, “talking circle leaders,” or “circle keepers,” will use a “compassionate, nonjudgmental, and culturally sensitive style.”

“In accordance with community input and harm reduction principles, neither drinking reduction nor abstinence is required,” the application read. “In the talking circle tradition, circle keepers introduce harm-reduction topics for discussion, and participants are encouraged to withhold judgment and support each other by ‘listening with their hearts’ while they take turns speaking in the circle on their personal experience with the topic.”

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