A therapist stands by her upset patient, who is crying with her hands by her face, and comforts her.The population of the United States is changing. Though its growth has slowed, the population continues to increase, drawing in people from all over the world and becoming more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the country will become “minority white” by 2045 and have more older adults than children by 2034. Additionally, by 2030, international immigration is expected to be the driving force of population growth, making for an ever-diversifying country in the following decades.

With such a diverse population, all healthcare workers need to be empathetic and understanding of their patients’ cultural differences, especially when it comes to providing mental health services. People of all races, gender identities, ages, sexualities, and income levels seek out mental health services for a variety of reasons. Each person, no matter who they are or where they come from, is entitled to mental health treatment that is mindful of their culture and background.

Whether you’re looking to establish yourself as a mental health professional or grow your existing healthcare practice, it’s essential to learn more about the importance of providing culturally sensitive mental health services:

What Is Culturally Sensitive Counseling?

Being culturally sensitive means that you are aware and accepting of the differences and similarities between peoples’ cultures, but you do not judge or assign value to those differences. It means you understand that someone’s culture can influence how they think and feel, what their beliefs are, and how they act and behave.

When it comes to providing mental health treatment, culturally sensitive counseling simply means that you acknowledge and understand the different backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems of your clients. You also need to understand how your own background can impact your relationships with and your ability to treat clients whose cultures differ from yours.

Whether your client is looking to manage stress and its effects, deal with a sleep issue, or overcome trauma, culturally sensitive counseling techniques can be used for any mental health issue or applied to any type of therapy.

For instance, if you have a client who grew up in a low-income household, you need to be mindful of their background to properly care for them. Living in poverty has lasting impacts, so even if your client now enjoys a higher salary, the environment they grew up in could still be affecting their mental and physical health. You don’t need to center your care around this fact, but you do need to be aware of it and treat this client with cultural sensitivity calibrated to their unique personal background and circumstances.

The Ethical Obligation of Multicultural Counseling

Similar to how doctors and other healthcare providers swear to “do no harm” to their patients, counselors and therapists must follow certain ethical standards when giving treatment. Cultural competence is one of these ethical obligations that mental health professionals must uphold in their work.

Further, being culturally sensitive is a necessity when providing mental health services. According to the Code of Ethics from the American Counseling Association, “Honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts” is a core principle of counseling as a profession. Under this framework, you cannot effectively or successfully do your job without being culturally sensitive.

The Benefits of Culturally Sensitive Counseling

There are many benefits of culturally sensitive mental health services, for both you and your clients, including:

  • More patients: As you incorporate culturally sensitive techniques into your practice, you will have the knowledge and tools you need to see more patients. More people may be interested in your services if they know you know how to work with people from different backgrounds. Further, with more potential patients available, you can work to build your clientele or your practice as a whole.
  • Better care: With more techniques at your disposal, you can also offer better, more effective care to your patients. In addition to teaching them about common therapeutic practices and strategies, you can use their background to get a better understanding of what they need, allowing you to tailor their care to reflect their cultural values and personal beliefs.
  • Necessary adaptation: Providing culturally sensitive mental health services is a necessity to grow your practice and services in the modern age. As the population grows, you will need to be able to care for an increasingly diverse pool of patients. If you don’t have the cultural competency to effectively treat people from different backgrounds, you may struggle to stay in business as other therapists and practices make this shift.
  • Destigmatizing mental health: Despite recent strides, mental health is still a taboo topic, and people who seek mental health treatment may be judged or viewed negatively. This stigma can be more prevalent or severe in other cultures. However, when you offer culturally sensitive services, you can work to overcome that stigma in your patient and present mental health treatment in a way that is more resonant with them. They, in turn, may be able to explain their mental healthcare in a way that helps their friends and family members of that culture understand its importance and benefits.

The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Counseling

Though many healthcare professionals consider cross-cultural counseling an ethical imperative, it can still be challenging to effectively and successfully integrate into your care. Some of the biggest difficulties of culturally sensitive counseling include:

  • Mistakes: It’s unfortunate but inevitable — you will make mistakes in your attempts to be a more culturally sensitive counselor. You’ll encounter many different people, from completely different backgrounds, and you may do or say something to offend someone in your efforts to treat them. Making a mistake or saying something insensitive can negatively impact your relationship with your client or otherwise affect their desire to seek treatment.
  • Cultural barriers: Despite trying your best, you may encounter cultural barriers that make it difficult or impossible to connect with some of your clients. You may find some clients whose experiences are so far removed from your own that you truly can’t overcome your cultural differences. Though being culturally sensitive and aware is always possible, it may not be enough for you to effectively treat some patients.
  • Continual work: You may have certain qualities that make you well-suited to work in a holistic healthcare role, but you still have to develop your skills and grow your knowledge to successfully deliver culturally competent care. This requires looking inward to confront your own biases and beliefs, as well as an active effort to keep an open mind.
  • Ongoing learning: Being culturally competent requires ongoing training and learning about different cultures and about new innovations in your field. As more research emerges about the best ways to offer culturally competent care, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with these new concepts and techniques to continue providing the best care to your patients.

How to Become a Culturally Competent Counselor

It doesn’t matter if you’re a psychologist, occupational therapist, or psychiatric nurse — if you provide mental health services, you can work to improve your cultural competence:

  • Reflect on yourself: Before anything else, take some time to learn about yourself, your background, and your own culture. Reflect on how your experiences and beliefs impact your view of others’ cultures, and consider how that affects your relationships with your patients.
  • Learn about other cultures: Do your best to learn about other cultures, especially if you know you’re going to work with a patient who has a different background. Read scientific articles or academic books discussing these cultures. In addition, consume media from that culture, or read memoirs and blog posts to learn about others’ firsthand experiences.
  • Spend time with people of other cultures: Similarly, make an effort to spend time with people who come from other cultures or who have wildly different life experiences from you, both in professional and social settings. Not only is this is a great way to get to know new people, but it also exposes you to new experiences, concepts, and information that you can’t learn from a book or in a classroom.
  • Know your limits: Despite your efforts to improve, you won’t be able to learn everything about every culture on earth. Instead of getting discouraged, do your best to accept this. Recognize when you don’t have enough cultural knowledge to effectively treat someone, and refer your patient to someone who might be a better fit for them.

Finally, always try to be patient with yourself as you learn how to be more culturally sensitive. It’s a journey you’re undertaking to be a better mental health professional, not a goal or achievement to accomplish. Simply trying your best to be mindful of others’ cultures is the most important step of a lifetime of learning and growth, both for yourself and your patients.

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