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Understanding a person’s personal and cultural values, beliefs, and background can be crucial for effective therapy.

The relationship between mental health professionals and their clients is important.

They are there to make sure their clients are heard and understood, and an important part of that means understanding their client’s cultural backgrounds.

This is why it’s necessary for mental health professionals to strive for cultural competence.

According to Ashlee Wisdom, MPH, CEO and founder of Health in Her Hue, cultural competence in therapy is:

  • “care that is given to a patient that takes into account their lived experiences and their social and cultural contexts”
  • “seeing all aspects of a patient and taking into account the things that they value”

In other words, cultural competence in therapy involves a mental health professional understanding the beliefs, backgrounds, and values of their clients — this includes their culture, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sexuality.

Cultural competence in therapy also helps cross any cultural boundaries that may exist between a therapist and their client.

A culturally competent therapist will strive to understand complex issues such as oppression and microaggressions, and understand when their clients are being their most authentic selves — for example, when they use certain dialects or words that may not be considered Standard English.

Specifically, culturally competent therapists will strive to understand and address issues concerning race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and gender in a client’s life experience.

Therapy is a personal and intimate experience between you and your therapist. It’s crucial for you to feel understood by your therapist, and for your therapist to make efforts to understand you for therapy to be effective.

Wisdom adds that cultural competence in therapy is important because it may give you the comfort to share more with your therapist.

For example, she says, “I never talked with my white doctor about the racism and microaggressions that I was dealing with because I just didn’t think she would relate to it, whereas, with my black doctor I shared so much with her.”

For Wisdom, sharing the same cultural background as her doctor helped her feel more comfortable sharing certain details about her health. According to research from 2013, “racial matching,” or the shared race of a client and a mental health professional, can be used as an element of cultural competence in therapy and may lessen the chance of a person dropping out of therapy.

Although racial matching can be helpful, it isn’t necessary for therapy to be considered as having cultural competence. It’s important to be proactive about finding a therapist that responds to your specific needs when it relates to culture.

Many historically marginalized groups face challenges — such as poverty, stigmatization about going to therapy, and the potential lack of cultural awareness from those outside their culture — that may make therapy difficult without a culturally competent therapist.

In addition to these challenges, some face their own unique challenges when it comes to finding the right therapist.

Black Americans

Black or African Americans are more likely to report negative emotions and symptoms than their white peers, although they’re less likely to receive treatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

A significant part of this may be due to the stigma about therapy within the community. According to a 2013 study, 63% of Black Americans view mental health issues as a sign of weakness.

It’s crucial for people to seek help from therapists who understand these issues and can help destigmatize therapy.

Wisdom echoes this by saying, “As a Black woman who goes to therapy, I may want to find a Black woman therapist because I want someone who understands the nuances of what it means to move through the world and move through the United States as a Black woman.”

Hispanic and Latinx Americans

Hispanic and Latinx communities are diverse and can include individuals from Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, South American, and other backgrounds.

Depending on a person’s background within this community, there may be some cultural differences that affect the way a person interacts with their therapist, including language.

Individuals who identify as Hispanic or Latinx may be bilingual or bi-dialectal, in which case having a therapist who understands the language may be essential.

For example, a 2010 study showed that healthcare professionals misunderstood the term “nervios” as a way of describing physical tiredness when patients may have been describing symptoms of depression instead.

Indigenous Americans

Indigenous American communities are also diverse, as this term accounts for all groups who lived on what is now American land prior to European colonization.

Much like Hispanic and Latinx communities, it might be important for you to find a therapist who can understand any potential differences in language.

Also, a therapist that understands the treatment of Indigenous groups by the government might be important to you.

A history of broken treaties, forced removal from land, and assimilation may make it difficult to trust government-run mental health programs or healthcare professionals who aren’t familiar with the history and culture of Indigenous groups.

LGBTQIA+ Americans

The LGBTQIA+ community represents a wide range of identities, and the type of therapy each individual may need will vary based on their needs, goals, and symptoms.

Research shows that lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are twice as likely as heterosexual adults to describe negative emotional symptoms, according to a 2016 review.

A 2019 review found that transgendered adults are four times as likely as cis-gender adults to have at least one mental health diagnosis.

For therapists who are training to work with transgendered individuals, it’s important to be aware of the unique challenges that may contribute to their mental health symptoms, especially those in relation to sexuality.

A culturally competent therapist will also be equipped to handle issues such as:

  • coming out
  • rejection from family and others
  • trauma as a result of experiencing homophobia, biphobia, bullying

Other minority groups

There are other groups that may need cultural considerations when seeking or giving therapy such as:

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a few tips to find a culturally competent therapist whom you can try include:

Doing research

  • Ask family, friends, and coworkers for recommendations.
  • Ask healthcare professionals for recommendations that fit the cultural characteristics you’re looking for in a therapist.
  • Look online for therapists that fit your needs.
  • Ask organizations within your community or check online communities for recommendations.

Asking questions

Ask your therapist if they:

  • are familiar with your culture, beliefs, and values, especially toward mental health
  • are willing to learn more about your culture, beliefs, and values
  • have experience treating people with your cultural background
  • have had cultural competence training
  • plan to include cultural aspects in therapy sessions and plans
  • are bilingual or bi-dialectal

Being proactive

  • Give your therapist relevant information about your culture and background.
  • Ask questions and do research about mental health in your community.
  • Tell your therapist the role you want your family to play in your treatment.
  • Be aware of how your treatment is going and if your therapist is the right fit.

There are a number of apps, services, and organizations to connect you with a culturally competent therapist.

Health in Her Hue offers access to licensed mental health professionals who specialize in dealing with cultural issues and are constantly being trained on how to provide more inclusive care.

Though the brand is marketed toward Black women and Women of Color, Wisdom notes that some of the therapists listed on the site are equipped to handle a multitude of cultural backgrounds and that “everyone is welcome to find a provider that’s the best fit for them.”

Some other resources for culturally competent therapists include:

“If you’re a provider, it’s your job to stay equipped in providing the most inclusive and sensitive care,” Wisdom says.

Wisdom also adds that whether you’re a Black therapist, a white therapist, an Asian therapist, or a Latinx therapist, it’s important to make sure that you’re equipped and informed on providing sensitive care to all patients regardless of whether your race or cultural background matches that of your patient.

Though it’s nearly impossible to be knowledgeable in every cultural background, it’s crucial to let potential clients know upfront whether you think you might not be a great fit for them and direct them to another therapist if necessary.

It’s also important to understand how culture impacts the type of therapy a person may be looking for.

For example, people who are from a collectivist culture — or a culture where the needs of the group trump those of an individual — might need a different approach than someone who is from an individualistic culture.

Therapists can also take cultural competence training and stay up to date on other similar training. This may help provide therapists with a wider scope of cultural knowledge, as well as lessen the chances of personal biases and thoughts — both conscious and unconscious — impacting therapy.

Cultural competence in therapy can be beneficial to both therapists and their clients. It can help allow for a more comfortable and productive therapy session.

It can also make the client feel heard and supported and cross any cultural barriers that may exist between client and therapist.

If you’re looking for more resources, you can check out our page on Mental Health Resources for People of Color.