Folk Counseling

By Jon Keyes

bamboo A little over a hundred years ago Sigmund Freud initiated the field of psychology, the practice of helping people work through emotional distress by talking and exploring hidden subconscious depths. Early psychoanalysts felt that this exploration could lead to insight that would bring cathartic emotional release and integrative transformation.

Along with psychiatric medications many in the West consider psychotherapy the gold standard for the treatment of mental health conditions. In the modern world, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of cognitive behavioral therapy as the best “evidence based” style of counseling to help people work through conditions such as anxiety, phobias and depression.

We tend to see things through the lens of our modern westernized experience, but these methods of helping people in distress are actually quite new and unique to this time period. Historically and cross culturally, a wide variety of techniques are used to help people heal while counseling may only play a small part in the process.

Hearthside Healing

Each culture has developed unique tools for helping people manage emotional suffering. In China, the practice of qi Gong with its flowing movements, static postures and vocal intonations, form the basis of healing emotional distress. In India, special mantras, rituals, dietary practices and the use of herbs form the basis of healing. In some parts of latin America and Africa, elaborate shamanic rituals, exorcisms, and plant entheogens are employed as a way to help people heal.

Our modern forms of helping people in emotional distress (talk therapy and medications) have largely supplanted more traditional forms of healing. In some cases this is a continuation of oppression and colonization that has gone on for hundreds of years.

teaIndigenous healing practices are denigrated and seen as unscientific, based on superstitions, or as an adjunct to the proper, modern way of helping people in distress. In this way, we have ignored and suppressed folk methods of healing that are often highly effective.

Traditionally, helping people heal from distress has long been the domain of wise women and men acting as kitchen herbalists and hearthside healers. The simple practice of offering rest and comfort, a cup of tea and a listening ear is what I call folk counseling. It is the oldest and most basic form of helping someone when they are down, confused, distressed and overwhelmed. No heroic rituals or complex medicinal formulas are needed.

Principles of Folk Counseling

At the core, folk counseling is a way of helping people to heal based on a few principles. Folk counseling is…

Based primarily on nourishment.

At the core of the practice of folk counseling is the idea that we don’t need to be healed, or need repeated cleanses or elimination of “bad” parts of ourselves. Instead, folk counseling is about nourishing a person so that they can live life optimally. Traditional psychotherapeutic tools emphasize exploring and analyzing past trauma as a way of releasing old wounds and healing. Many folk traditions emphasize the importance of nourishing diet, herbs and spiritual techniques for moving through periods of distress.

Honors neurodiversity.

There is a wide variety of human experience and many different ways of processing life. In most traditional healing modalities, a person is seen as being born with an underlying temperament, or constitution. Some run hot, some cold. Some have a more heightened nervous system, others appear more slow and calm. These are differences to be celebrated and not pathologized. Folk counselors celebrate this diversity, just as they celebrate the diversity of plants and tress growing outside their home.

Honors traditional ways of helping people in distress.

In this era of “evidence based medicine”, there is a strong emphasis placed on offering assistance that has been tested by randomized control studies (RCTs). This has led us to primarily honor medications and specific therapies (CBT) as the main acceptable approaches to “treating” people in distress. But this ignores a wide variety of traditional and indigenous “folk” healing traditions. Folk counseling allies itself with the widely divergent and unique ways of helping people integrate and heal from emotional distress.


Healing is based on creating an alliance where the counselor is not the expert and both people are working together towards integration and healing. Though a counselor may have gained quite a bit of knowledge from studies, the individual seeking assistance is the only one who is truly an expert of their life and current distress.

A nature based practice.

Traditionally, healing often comes from the simple weeds and herbs from the land nearby, from walking in the forests and meadows, from listening to the stories of the plants and the trees. From the Japanese tradition of “forest bathing” to the Amazonian tradition of apprenticing with local plants, the importance of nature in the healing process is a common time honored and cross cultural tradition.
Based in social justice.

tea2When talking about “folk”, we mean the simple everyday people who live in this world. Many of them have been oppressed by outside forces that have harmed their way of life. Throughout the world, indigenous populations have been persecuted by governments and corporations who have stolen their land, used it to extract resources or forced people into servant and slave labor.Folk counseling is based on an underlying principle of resistance to these forces. Much of the distress and illness found today is due to the unrelenting pressures of capitalism and modernity. Part of the work of folk counseling is addressing the ecological, social and economic injustices that happen on a global as well as individual level.

Based in love. Yes, at the core, folk counseling is based on the principle of love. That means that when we are listening to someone who is in pain, we are listening with our full hearts, showing unconditional positive regard towards the people we work with. That does not mean that a folk counselor doesn’t have boundaries, or may choose not to work with certain people, but it means that the core energy in the process is one of offering heartfelt support and compassion.


As we move deeper into the 21st century, we are experiencing ever greater levels of emotional distress. Mental health issues have exploded and increasingly we are medicating ourselves to manage this distress. The process of ever-increasing population, overcrowding, competition for remaining resources and unstable agriculture and water systems, have led to an epidemic of mental illness. More than ever we need to look to our ancestors and to indigenous cultures to see how to regain balance, how to find healing. Folk counseling is a way of returning to the simple and time-honored traditions of healing that have served us for thousands of years.

jonJon Keyes, LPC, is a therapist and herbalist who lives in Portland. Jon is deeply interested in exploring holistic and traditional ways of integrating and healing from emotional distress. He can be found at

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here

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