5 min read

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Caitlin Harper

What A Culturally Competent Therapist Is And How To Find One

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the unique struggles that underrepresented groups face regarding mental health care. It's possible to work with a therapist who does not share your background or identity, as long as they are culturally competent and a good fit for you. So what is culturally competent care?
What A Culturally Competent Therapist Is And How To Find One

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the unique struggles that underrepresented groups face regarding mental health care. Its official name is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, named after Bebe Moore Campbell, founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles chapter, champion for mental health education and support for individuals of diverse communities, journalist and New York Times bestselling author, and recipient of NAMI’s 2003 Outstanding Media Award for Literature. Bebe passed away in 2006, but her legacy lives on in her work.

“We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African-Americans,” she said on NPR’s Morning Edition in 2005. “The message must go on billboards and in radio and TV public service announcements. It must be preached from pulpits and discussed in community forums.”

Because there are unique mental health struggles Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face in terms of stigma and access to care

While mental health affects everyone regardless of culture, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, people from racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to receive mental health care and American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rate of mental health conditions among all communities.

According to NAMI, multicultural communities:

  • have less access to treatment
  • are less likely to receive treatment
  • have poorer quality of care and higher levels of stigma
  • have to deal with a culturally insensitive health care system and face racism, bias, homophobia or discrimination in treatment settings
  • could have language barriers
  • have lower rates of health insurance.

Because of racial inequalities in the mental health field itself, it can be an additional hurdle to find a therapist with a similar background or identity to you, especially when you consider all of the intersectionalities of your own identity. While 13.4% of the U.S. population identify themselves as Black or African American, less than 2% of American Psychological Association members are Black or African American.

While your needs come first and your decision to work with someone who shares your background or aspects of your identity is valid, it is also possible to work with a therapist who does not share your background or identity, as long as they are culturally competent and a good fit for you.

What is culturally competent care and why is it important?

NAMI defines cultural competency as “the behaviors, attitudes and skills that allow a health care provider to work effectively with different cultural groups.

Your culture can play a huge part in your mental and physical health, your views of mental health treatment, the way you communicate your needs to your healthcare providers, the way you interpret communication from your healthcare providers, and the way you might be treated by healthcare providers. When you work with someone who lacks cultural competency, it can have an impact on the quality of your care.

According to Mental Health America, “a culturally and linguistically competent mental health system incorporates skills, attitudes, and policies to ensure that it is effectively addressing the needs of consumers and families with diverse values, beliefs, and sexual orientations, in addition to backgrounds that vary by race, ethnicity, religion, and language.”

“As clinicians, it is our ethical duty to provide care that is culturally competent to individuals seeking our services,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “This will look differently depending on the clinician and the client as we need to be aware of not only the client's identities, but also our own identities as cultural beings.”

How can you find a culturally competent therapist?

Word of mouth and recommendations from friends and loved ones can be valuable, but this entails moving past the stigma of talking about mental health and sharing our journey with others. How much you share with another person is up to you, but through being open about your mental health needs with others, you might be connected with a culturally competent therapist.

You can also contact agencies or organizations who build communities for and serve people with your identity or cultural background. They might have directories or could put you in direct contact with therapists who could be a good fit for you.

When you do your own research, look at the websites and social media profiles of your potential therapist. Are they using culturally competent language and images? Do they have a statement or testimonies on their site about their success with people who have different backgrounds and identities? Just like you might research a potential employer, research the public profile of your potential therapist.

Matching services like MyWellbeing will ask about topics you’d like to explore with your therapist, such as race-related stress, immigration, cultural competence, spiritual crisis and transition, social justice, and trauma. We also ask about the preferred identity of your therapist, including their gender and whether or not they identify as a person of color or LGBTQIA+, and we ask you to rank the importance of these factors in their search. Your topics and style preferences are used to connect you with matches who are likely to be strong fits for you, but you are able to use your free phone consultations to gauge your chemistry together and ask specific questions.

Here are some questions you can ask a potential therapist to gauge their level of cultural competence

  • Do you have experience treating people with my identity or cultural background?
  • What training have you had in cultural competency?
  • Do you have familiarity with my culture’s attitudes toward mental health treatment?
  • Are you willing to learn about aspects of my culture and identity that you aren’t familiar with?
  • How would you include my identity, race, age, religion, gender identity, etc. in my care and treatment plan?

It’s not your responsibility to teach your therapist. They should be doing the work to become culturally competent and knowledgeable about different cultures and intersectional identities themselves. You can, however, gauge their willingness and openness to learn and decide if their current level of knowledge is enough to support you.

How will your therapist integrate your culture into your treatment plan?

Many people have had less-than-positive experiences with the healthcare system. There is often pressure to defer to doctors and expectations that it’s rude to ask questions or challenge decisions and diagnoses. My own experiences with the healthcare system have been mostly neutral and often negative, and I was surprised by the level of individualized care a good therapist can provide.

“Therapists that provide culturally competent care will have an ongoing process of developing awareness and knowledge of client's racial and ethnic identity development, cultural strengths and values, and experiences with stigma, prejudice, and discrimination,” says Ernesto. “It is through this process that we are able to modify and adapt our clinical interventions so they are culturally sensitive for our clients.”

You deserve to find a therapist who understands, affirms, and supports your background and identity and integrates your individual needs into your treatment

“We are always working towards cultural competence and this is a life-long process that can be both difficult and rewarding, but ultimately will benefit all the clients we see in our practices,” says Ernesto.

A culturally competent provider should include cultural beliefs, values, practices, and attitudes in your care to meet your unique needs and they should also treat you like the intersectional individual you are. By asking the right questions, understanding the importance of culturally competent care, and finding a therapist who is a good match for your unique identity, you’ll be able to get the mental health support you deserve.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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