As the United States becomes more and more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the mental health field must adapt to more effectively support its population.
Multicultural counseling seeks to understand how cultural and identity issues impact an individual’s mental health and how those factors might influence a patient’s relationship with counseling itself.
What is multicultural counseling?
Multicultural counseling is a term used to describe a specific type of counseling practice that acknowledges how various aspects of a patient’s cultural identity might influence their mental health. Relevant factors can include issues of race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, socioeconomic background, and gender identity.
“Multicultural counseling is, at its heart, about appreciating that individuals are not all the same and that their personal background—their ethnicity, their race, and their cultural context—is an important component of who they are,” says Susan Bradley, Assistant Program Coordinator for the Applied Psychology Department in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University. “These factors need to be an essential element of the assessment process and their treatment.”
Counselors and psychologists who embrace the tenets of multicultural counseling acknowledge how these factors might influence the individual. They also seek to understand how different cultures and groups approach mental health and counseling issues to tailor treatment plans to these realities more effectively. Additionally, counselors and psychologists may specialize in working with populations facing racism, discrimination, and oppression.
Why is Multicultural Counseling Important?
Multicultural counseling is vital because we live in a diverse society that is only projected to become more so over the coming decades. As more and more people from different backgrounds seek therapeutic treatment, mental health counselors and psychologists need to be able to take a holistic approach in understanding, acknowledging, and addressing their needs.
More specifically, being trained in multicultural counseling is important for several tactical reasons. People from different cultural backgrounds often have very different lived realities. These differences influence not only the types of mental health issues that a person experiences but also their perception of and relationship to counseling.
People of different cultures and ethnic groups or socioeconomic backgrounds often approach counseling and mental health through the lens of their cultural background. When a culture has assigned a negative connotation to the idea of mental health counseling, that belief can lead to a reluctance to seek help, which can ultimately inhibit effective treatment.
Many studies have also demonstrated that African Americans are <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4009685/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">less likely than white Americans</a> to seek mental health services, even when they believe that such services are effective.
For example, in many Latin American cultures, there is a strong emphasis placed on gender roles. In men, this is often characterized by the term machismo, which refers to a form of strong, often aggressive masculinity. Belief in this concept can cause someone from that background to avoid or forego counseling, even when it is necessary, due to the implication that doing so would be a form of weakness. Additionally, this mindset could very well be the cause of relationship troubles, intimacy issues, and even depression.
Many studies have also demonstrated that African Americans are less likely than white Americans to seek mental health services, even when they believe that such services are effective. Further research has found that low-income Americans have less access to mental health services than those who live in high-income households.
There are many potential reasons that these disparities may exist, and affordability and access receive much of the discourse around the subjects. But mental health professionals should seek to understand the cultural issues which also play a role in making someone more or less likely to seek counseling.
Developing Multicultural Counseling Skills
To effectively work with individuals from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, mental health professionals must develop a deep sense of cultural awareness that empowers them to understand the different cultural factors contributing to a patient’s wellbeing.
"Being respectful of cultural backgrounds and incorporating cultural components into the treatment process is woven throughout Northeastern’s program, and it’s an essential piece of what we do"
As a counselor, this understanding will empower you to connect with your patients more effectively, empathize with them, and tailor your treatment plans to their lived reality. It will also allow you to recognize the various cultural factors which might cause an individual to be more or less open to mental health services, which you can use to your advantage during treatment.
In seeking a degree program in preparation for your career, such as a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology, it’s essential to find a program that acknowledges the role that race, ethnicity, and identity play in mental health, says Bradley.
“Being respectful of cultural backgrounds and incorporating cultural components into the treatment process is woven throughout Northeastern’s program, and it’s an essential piece of what we do,” she says.
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