What is Culturally Competent Care?

5 min read

And how do I find it?…

Your time at college or university can be such a powerful period for change and growth. You meet a lot of new people, might travel to new places, and learn so much about yourself as well as the world around you.

Some of these challenges you face might be hard, and might be very specific to your experiences. For example, you may be the first person in your family to go to college and are navigating the newness, the pressures, and ways you realize your peers may not fully “get” it and neither does your family. You may have moved to a place that looks racially or geographically very different from what you’re comfortable with, and as a result you’re needing to adjust and adapt in unexpected ways. You may be questioning your sexual or gender identity, and want a place where you can speak without judgment.

Culturally competent counseling can be a wonderful space for support as you navigate changes like these. Counselors who are trained to offer culturally competent care prioritize your experiences, familial background, important social identities, and the values you bring into counseling. They have the ability to offer culturally-informed interventions that help you meet your goals.

What is cultural competence?

Counselors can offer culturally competent care when they actively:

  1. Broaden their self-awareness of their worldview, biases, and preconceived notions that they bring into the room
  2. Strengthen their knowledge of the existence of different world-views and stay curious without negative judgment
  3. Build their skills so that they can offer relevant culturally-appropriate interventions to you

Rather than treat these as end goals, a culturally-competent counselor consistently engages in this process of growth to stay up-to-date on what they have to offer.

Is culturally competent care only relevant to people navigating race-related issues?

Cultural competency was originally discussed in the context of race. However the model focusing on self-awareness, knowledge, and skills has now been applied to a lot of different social identities, including

  • Gender and sexual identity
  • Religious background
  • Ability status
  • Linguistic needs
  • Nationality/immigration-related experiences
  • Class/economic status

What are the benefits of receiving culturally competent care?

  • Therapy that centers your values and worldview
  • A space for deep and honest conversations, because of your therapist’s awareness and willingness to consider and discuss different worldviews
  • A shared understanding that experiences like discrimination have an impact on mental health
  • Therapist knowledge on interventions that are tailored to your specific issues. For example, interventions that address stress due to discrimination or cultural isolation can look very different from general stress management techniques

Does my therapist need to share a similar experience/background/identity for me to get culturally competent care?

Not necessarily. Remember that cultural competence is about self-awareness, knowledge, and skills, so these factors are important if you’re looking for culturally competent care.

That said, similarity of experience or background can be very powerful. For example, for some, it might be very healing to work with a person with the same background when historically you have experienced judgment and stigma about mental health within your community. Sometimes difference in background and experience can also be powerful. For example, in some circumstances it might be really meaningful for a student of color to work with a white therapist who understands and “gets” systemic issues like racism.

When is care not culturally competent?

The following examples suggest your therapist might not be able to offer culturally competent care at this stage of their journey.

  • If you notice that the therapist is quick to label and negatively judge culture-specific behaviors, without giving space for your experience and input
  • If your therapist brings up stereotypes in a way that feels reinforcing of them rather than helpful to understanding your experience
  • If your therapist consistently appears uncomfortable, makes jokes, or avoids certain topics relating to specific identities

How do I look for therapists who offer culturally competent care?

  1. Think about the issues you want to address, and look for therapists who specialize in these issues. For example, you might be returning home for the first time after coming out as gay, and might be struggling with anxiety, so you might want to look for a therapist who specializes in LGB issues and anxiety.
  2. In addition to thinking of specialities, identify the qualities that help you feel more comfortable and open, such as listening, kindness, and active problem-solving.
  3. Come up with questions to ask potential therapists during your initial consultation with them. Remember, you are allowed to ask hard questions 🙂
  4. Look at directories like The Shrink Space to identify therapists!

What questions can I ask to see if a therapist can provide culturally competent care?

While many therapists are familiar with the phrase cultural competence, not all of us have been trained to use this phrase. As a result, I recommend asking questions that tap into the core of cultural competence without using that phrase.

  1. What are your experiences working with clients who are navigating these specific issues (e.g., race, immigration, transphobia)?
  2. How comfortable are you with talking about ________? (e.g., racism in the classroom, immigration issues and impact of academic functioning, classism in higher education)
  3. How do you talk about these issues with your clients?
  4. How do you invest in your growth and understanding of these topics?

What if I find that the therapist I’m working with is not that helpful to me?

Therapists generally enter our profession with a deep desire to help others. That said, we are also human and may not have had exposure to certain subcultures or communities. As a result, our interventions may not feel like the best fit.

  1. If you feel comfortable and your therapist seems open to feedback, consider talking with them to see if you can address the issue together. Let them know what you might need, e.g., “I’d really like help identifying resources to address this issue,” or “I notice I’m often explaining my background a lot in a way that makes it difficult to talk about my concerns – is there a way we can reduce this together?”
  2. If you’re uncomfortable discussing some of the issues coming up in therapy, it might be helpful to consider looking for another therapist. In addition to using The Shrink Space, it might be helpful to ask friends and mentors for recommendations.

What if I can’t find a therapist who specializes in what I need to address?

Sometimes for geographic, scheduling, or insurance-related issues, it can be difficult to find a therapist who specializes in the area of cultural competence we are looking for – this can be particularly true if you’re looking for someone with multiple areas of specializations. Don’t worry, there are still some ways to find someone who will help you in your growth:

  1. Consider looking for therapists specializing in areas of interest who offer video counseling in your state.
  2. Consider looking for therapists who are curious, invested in your growth, and open to feedback so they can support you. I once had a white supervisor very openly say “You will probably be more educated about race-related issues than I am, but I’m invested in learning.” I appreciated that openness because it showed that he was aware and had the capacity and interest to grow.

Culturally competent care can be a healing experience!

In college, you learn so much about yourself and how you interact with the world around you. It can be the perfect time to connect with a culturally competent provider who is skilled and sensitive about your experiences.

Students – to read more articles on minority mental health check out this post. Providers – read this post for some of the latest updates in minority mental health. Dr. Snehal Kumar is a provider on The Shrink Space. To learn more about her or schedule an appointment, visit her profile here!

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