Feds Spend $269,947 Creating 'Talking Circles' to Fight Alcoholism

Study will use 'talking sticks' for alcoholics to 'speak from the heart'

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April 20, 2018

The National Institutes of Health is spending over a quarter of a million dollars creating "talking circles" to fight alcoholism.

Washington State University received the funding earlier this year for 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 project, entitled "Randomized Clinical Trial of Harm Reduction Talking Circles for Urban American Indians and Alaska Natives with Alcohol Use Disorders," will not ask alcoholic participants to 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."

Instead, the study proposes using talking circles as a "non-abstinence-based harm-reduction approach with Native cultural practices" to get Native Americans to drink less.

"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 explains. "Traditionally, talking circles have been used to address community problems, heal individuals from trauma, and bring about community harmony."

The study will involve at least 280 patients in Seattle with "lived experience" of alcohol use disorder. The project, which began in February, has received $269,947 from taxpayers so far.

The researchers say 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," according to 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."

A talking circle is a "very effective way to remove barriers and to allow people to express themselves with complete freedom," according to Mi'kmaw Spirituality.

"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 leader of the circle will use a feather or a "special talking stick" that signifies when it is a person's turn to speak. Rules include "speak from the heart" and "what is said in the circle stays in the circle."

The study's lead researcher Lonnie Nelson, a descendent of the Eastern Band Cherokee (Ani-Kituwa) and assistant professor at Washington State University, provided the Washington Free Beacon the grant application submitted to the NIH. The application explains the project is "innovative" because sitting together talking about personal problems with alcohol has never been tried.

Participants in the study aimed at reducing drinking do not need to attempt to drink less, as the talking circle is intended to be "compassionate, nonjudgmental, and culturally sensitive."

"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 states.

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 says. "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."