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What is culturally competent therapy?

by Shaysa Villa | May 2019

We all may have heard the horror stories of encountering a culturally insensitive therapist. We start to believe that mental health is a “white” space not beneficial to our diverse needs. We leave the session possibly more misunderstood, closed-off, and jaded. Like, did I really spend an hour so uncomfortable with a therapist that had no idea how to approach my cultural richness, diversity, and multifaceted layers? The process may then feel like, damn, this is another colonized space that I have to maneuver? This may not be worth it. 

I’m here to tell you I don’t have all the answers. But I do know mental health services do need to be decolonized and normalized for people coming from diverse backgrounds. It is not fair to individuals in one of their most vulnerable times in life to add an additional stressor of a lost/insensitive therapist. Cultural competence provides a starting point when searching for psychotherapy services. 

Cultural competence in a psychotherapy setting is when a psychotherapist works with individuals through self-aware lens and diverse cultural lens. These lenses allow the therapist to develop positive attitudes toward cultural differences. In addition, the therapist will be able to gain knowledge of different cultural practices and world views that are vital to practice in culturally competent way. The therapist will never claim to be an EXPERT nor should claim to have more knowledge than you in your own defined experience. Especially when it comes to your specific identity and culture. True cultural competency, is the ability to comprehend, communicate, and effectively interact with people across cultures.

When searching for a culturally competent therapist, an individual will want to assess the therapist’s overall “attitude” in which a psychotherapist approaches people they work with. A psychotherapist that is culturally competent ensures meaningful and culturally sensitive questions are asked to gain a multifaceted and intersectional perspective. A psychotherapist will always have the goal to not further alienate individuals searching for mental health services. A therapist can do this by encompassing appropriate language that is sensitive and in-tune to cultural differences. Most importantly, searching for a therapist who is curious and invested in learning and tailoring their service delivery and approach to the diversity individuals possess. 

I like to empower individuals seeking mental health services to also assess their therapist’s responses and approach. Is your therapist truly invested in your diverse, unique, and interesting experiences? Does your therapist truly seek or market themselves to diverse clients? Does your therapist just simply state being culturally competent, with no evidence? Does your therapist lean in, reflect, and actively listen to your unique culturally diverse experiences? Is your therapist able to provide insightful and thought-out responses that are almost always culturally in-tune to you?

It may be difficult, but taking the time to work with an invested culturally competent therapist can be truly transformative.