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HealthUnderstanding the Importance of Culturally Competent Counseling and Therapy

February 27, 2020by Alicia Partee0


We live in a multicultural world. When people seek counseling, they come from all different walks of life and have a variety of backgrounds. As the population grows with more diversity the need for multicultural counseling increases. A counselor who is culturally competent is able to approach counseling in a way to takes the client’s world into account even when this differs from the counselor’s own worldview.

Cultural competence is focused around developing the interpersonal skills and cultural knowledge that is needed to work with people who also come from different cultures including marginalized racial and ethnic groups (e.g. based on sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, socio-economic status, religion, national origin). It includes addressing issues related to social inequality.

A counselor must become aware of their own culture including their values, beliefs, stereotypes, and bias they may hold. This requires the counselor to have self-awareness so they can be present and open to understanding and exploring how counseling may support the client in their unique way of life.

What Is Culture?

The moment we are born we are influenced by our culture, this shapes our behavior, beliefs, and values. culture relates to the customs norms that characterize a particular group’s way of life including one’s language, religion and encompasses a number of different characteristics. One’s ethnicity refers to one’s national background that one identifies with, but culture goes beyond ethnicity. It includes one’s social identity and a mutual sense of belonging that can be based on culture, race, history, family origins, beliefs, standards of behavior. While race is a social construct that is often associated with one’s skin color, physical features that may or may not overlaps with their culture.

Developing Cultural Competence 

Cultural competence means the therapist is able to acknowledge and validate who their clients are. It involves valuing diversity, accepting and respecting the differences that can exist between and within cultures. It also means becoming curious and being okay with not knowing. Allowing yourself to be curious and open to different ways of life and being that may differ from your own.

There are three main areas a counselor needs to be aware of to develop their cultural competence:

  1. Counselor Self-Awareness of Their Own Culture Values and Biases: A counselor must be aware of their own culture, values, and biases so they do not unconsciously come to impact their practice in a negative way. They must work to recognize their own limits and areas they need to improve upon to best help and support their clients who may not share the same beliefs. To expand your skills, counselors must acknowledge their own cultural and racial heritage and the effects of discrimination, racism, oppression, and stereotyping. Counselors must continue to gain knowledge with regard to different cultural populations to learn how to best support them within the context of their culture.  My teacher told me that the best way to do this is not only studying but asking!  Ask the client about their culture, if you don’t know.
  2. Counselor Awareness of Client World View: A counselor must be aware of the fact that their client’s world view is different than their own. They need to be aware that what may work for them may not work for their client. To truly understand their client’s worldview, they need to gain knowledge about the populations they work with and familiarize themselves with the culturally appropriate research. The counselor must also be aware of their own emotional reactions to other ethnic and racial groups and how the client may also respond to the counselor if there are major cultural differences. How will the client perceive them? This can be especially important to consider if there is a history of discrimination and violence between the two cultures. A client’s culture and its history will influence their personality, decision making, vocational choice, and willingness or reason/comfort level with seeking mental health support.
  3. Culturally Appropriate Counseling Interventions: Counselors that are culturally competent are able to provide support and interventions to their clients that will make sense within their culture. They must take into consideration the client’s religious views, beliefs, values, language, family dynamics, hierarchy, and indigenous practices. The counselors must work to use a language that is both verbal and non-verbal that will be understood by the client. A therapist can change the metaphors and language they use so they make sense within the context of the client’s life. The interventions need to be practical and make sense to the client based on their unique background and current reality. It is not a one shoe fits all for counseling interventions, they may need to be modified or changed so they resonate and align with the client’s life. This can be done collaboratively with the client, check in with them to be sure you are on the same page as them.

To become culturally competent, one must be open to all aspects of one’s cultural identity. Within each culture, different behaviors and actions can be interpreted differently. For example, hand gestures, sexual behavior, personal space, traditions, and ceremonies may differ between different cultures and within subcultures within one culture. It’s important to be aware of the variety of cultures and the factors that impact them. One’s culture can impact how these experiences are interpreted and viewed. When one remains open and aware of the cultural difference a foundation is put in place for positive therapeutic work to be done. Here are a number of benefits that follow cultural competence.

Benefits of Culturally Competent Counseling

Respect: When a counselor has shown they have taken the time to become aware of their client’s culture this demonstrates respect and can help build a therapeutic relationship, the foundation of successful therapy.

Improved Care: When you use culturally responsive care you can choose the appropriate assessments, treatment approaches, and referrals that will best support your client. There is also an improvement in communication and less chance of misunderstanding about the presenting problems and needs of the clients. Different behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs can represent different things in different cultures, it’s important to know or be open to possible differences that may exist so you can best support the client. By remaining culturally sensitive and open you can improve the care provided and make a positive impact on the lives of your clients.

Social Justice: When a therapist is culturally competent, they can advocate and contribute to social justice. Social justice is related to equality (fairness) and a sense of real inclusion and safety. Becoming culturally competent means you are aware of the possible discrimination and marginalization the client may struggle with that can impact their mental health and what is the best course of action to take to support the client. You should continuously increase your knowledge of tools and resources that can support the client.

This is where I can help.  I provide culturally informed therapy for individuals, couples and families. 

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