The Missing Piece: What is Culturally-Sensitive Counseling?

By | 17 December, 2021

Despite not gaining the acclaim of their European counterparts, Latin American psychologists and researchers have left an indelible mark on the field. The initial influence of North American and European psychology gave way to an organic model that included distinctly Latin elements. 

For example, research shifted away from the animal studies ubiquitous in the comparative work of Skinner and Harlow. Instead, Latin American psychology remained focused on the human element, both in practice and outcomes. 

The undercurrent of political and social issues shaped the urgency of psychology to have practical and wide reaching applications. Liberation psychology,founded by social psychologist and eventual martyr, Ignacio Martín-Baró, emerged from a tumultuous period in the 1970s. 

In his work, Martín-Baró openly questioned if traditional psychology was sufficient to address the horrors endured by El Salvadorians during the civil war and others throughout the region facing similarly oppressive conditions. 

Gaps in mental health care access

Decades on, Martín-Baró’s concerns have yet to be adequately addressed. As the Latin population grows in the United States, the infrastructure of the mental health care system has been slow to adapt to the changing demographics. 13% of Americans speak Spanish, yet only 6% of mental health counselors can provide services in Spanish. 

The American Psychological Association has sounded the alarm about the growing mental health care gap. Latin Americans living in the United States are far less likely to find mental health care in their language, or interact with a therapist who understands their culture. As a result, 1 in 4 Latin Americans are not receiving adequate mental health treatment or support.

What is culturally-sensitive counseling?

Culture affects every aspect of the human experience. Even the most innate concepts, such as the meaning of emotional intelligence or what constitutes a mental disorder can vary widely between and within cultures.  

In a culturally-sensitive therapy session, the counselor views the client’s experience through the lens of their experiences, values, and belief system. 

Intersectionality is a key term in effective culturally-sensitive counseling. Therapists must take into account how different aspects of their clients’ identities intertwine to shape their experiences within diverse contexts, from their families to the wider community.

Without culturally-sensitive elements, therapy can seem like a demeaning and ineffective experience. Clients may feel misunderstood or even disrespected. This leads to high rates of attrition and for many, the adoption of poorer coping strategies.

Benefits of culturally-sensitive counseling

Culturally-sensitive therapies have been tied to several positive outcomes. A 2007 study from Brigham Young University found that speaking in one’s native language doubled the impact of talk therapies. 

The effect was greatest in individuals with the most barriers to accessing care, including limited English skills and lower household incomes. 

Psychologists have long investigated the connection between language, cognition, and emotions. The language spoken during the critical period – the formative years between 0 and 2 years old – is the best choice for explaining complex feelings. 

Going through therapy in a second or third language creates emotional distance. While this may not impact all clients, the cognitive divide may be too much for some individuals to overcome and render therapy ineffective.

How therapists can improve their cultural sensitivity 

The clearest path to improving access to culturally-sensitive mental health care is increasing the number of mental health providers from Latin backgrounds. The National Latino Behavioral Health Association has spearheaded these efforts through their Tenemos Voz initiative. Several prominent universities, including the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at John F. Kennedy University and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology have launched bilingual academic programs tailored to the needs of Latino clients and providers. 

Therapists from any nationality or ethnic background can improve their cultural sensitivity. The first step is building self-awareness of one’s own culture, and identifying the lenses through which they automatically view their clients.

From this place of self-awareness, mental health professionals must also show interest and curiosity about understanding the belief systems and values of others. To avoid burdening the client with this undertaking, therapists must understand that clients can only share their individual experiences. They are in no way responsible for educating a therapist on their culture. Cultivating cultural sensitivity is a lifelong practice that must come from the therapist’s own work and diligence. 

Therapists must also consider how current events are impacting the lives of their clients. While no group is a monolith, acknowledging external experiences that disproportionately impact individuals from Latin backgrounds can provide a more informed context for the client’s experiences. Immigration and family separation are common and impactful occurrences for many Latin American people.


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