Humility First

Avoiding Transcultural Overreach

Magazine Issue
March/April 2022
Humility Firs

Jaswant Guzder has spent most of her career as head of child psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University, where she codeveloped a first-of-its-kind cultural consultation service. Despite her association with a variety of transcultural mental health projects, including in India and Jamaica, and with members of Canada’s indigenous population, she cringes at the idea of what she calls airlifting Western therapy and dropping it on populations around the world.

“If you’re ever invited to bring Western clinical knowledge to another society,” she emphasizes, “it should be in the capacity of a listener—someone who’s never telling or even producing, but hearing and assisting the locals, who are themselves the experts.”

Her project with the late, famed psychiatrist Fred Hickling, a pioneer of cultural therapy and community mental health programs in Jamaica, was a collaboration with teachers who worked with some of Kingston’s poorest and most vulnerable kids. Hickling was known for standing up against what he considered to be a deeply flawed mental health system developed by the colonizing British and Europeans. And he saw in these kids—many of whom were failing school, facing high HIV and early pregnancy rates, and living shrouded in stigma—the potential to succeed through pinpointed, culturally aware group work.

“What we did in Jamaica was all about bringing back participatory learning,” says Guzder. “Poetry, art, theater: all things that could be made in a group. But the work would always start with a teacher in a garrison community who came to us. This is very important. You need to work with people who are offering you a space and welcoming you into the circle. They’re the experts, not you.”

“You have to partner with, learn from, and humbly assist the community members who know how to help these kids. If you’re working with a school, you need to give teachers what they need to help the children regulate themselves.”

“An idiocy in our profession is the idea that there’s a recipe book when it comes to working with another culture. We should throw that idea in the garbage.

“If you’re working with a school, you need to give teachers what they need to help the children regulate themselves. Yes, therapists might know how to work with the unconscious and the psyche, but astute clinicians know there are many ways of knowing in the world. As in our work with Dr. Farmer, the north can build and support training and infrastructure and make room for a collaborative process that does not dismiss local knowledge and initiatives for change.”


Art credit @ Jaswant Guzder

Lauren Dockett

Lauren Dockett, MS, is the senior writer at Psychotherapy Networker. A longtime journalist, journalism lecturer, and book and magazine editor, she’s also a former caseworker taken with the complexity of mental health, who finds the ongoing evolution of the therapy field and its broadening reach an engrossing story. Prior to the Networker, she contributed to many outlets, including The Washington Post, NPR, and Salon. Her books include Facing 30, Sex Talk, and The Deepest Blue. Visit her website at