Multicultural Counseling

Becoming a multiculturally competent counselor requires research, understanding the basics about the different populations you serve,  diligence, and the ability to know your limits.  Meet your clients where they are and understand that counseling a multicultural population is not a one size fits all strategy.  It is about being aware of your own biases and prejudices and doing the work to overcome them so that you can be an effective professional.  As much as we want to help everyone, we cannot possibly be a specialist in everything.  When we meet with clients from different cultures, we must consider other aspects of their diversity as an individual that include more than what you see; such as disability, age, sexual orientation and gender, spirituality and mental illness.  The term diversity has seemed over the ages to be viewed as a black or white issue, but to me understanding diversity is about being open to the experience of others that are different from you, and seeing and appreciating them for who they are.  When we are able to meet a client in a place that shows no judgment, that offers unconditional positive regard, genuineness and respect, the opportunity to help them make progress can be limitless.

I learned that specific interventions work with some populations better than others.  For example, with the Arab American culture CBT and solution focused are suggested as being more efficacious.  Constructivist approaches allow the client to tell their story and be heard, understood, and validated.  These interventions make sense because Arab-American clients may expect counselors to provide concrete solutions rather than to ask questions to promote insight. This culture is collectivistic, they generally have a large extended family, and community structure is valued by many Arab-Americans.  Outsiders must earn trust through demonstrations of knowledge and awareness. Focus should be on the collective unit rather than the individual and when appropriate, engaging support of community leaders such as the Imams or other trusted individuals can really make an impact when counseling these clients.  Other tips include learning a few key Arabic greetings and cultural traditions to help with establishing rapport.  When clients come in it may be due to psychosocial issues presenting as somatic or physical issues.  Some examples may include anxiety manifested in digestive, sleep, or other physical disorders.

The African American culture is collectivistic, they care for elderly at home, they are of a spiritual/ religious orientation.  This culture also values extended family relationships and practice collective child rearing practices.  African Americans are seen as assertive and expressive in communication style.  They handle “Family Business” within the family, so counseling may go against how they address or resolve problems.  For African American clients, use of first names with older clients may be seen as disrespectful, so asking a client what they would like to be called is significant.  A client may have a racial preference for a counselor; attempts should be made to meet the client’s needs and preferences.  The goal is to get them help, and understanding that it is not about me, it is about who can be most helpful to them is the focus.  I would however ask them to give me a chance, try me out for a couple sessions, and if they still prefer a counselor from their cultural background, I would be happy to refer them.

Effective treatments may include an Afrocentric approach called NTU Psychotherapy.  It was developed by Phillips in 1990.  This modality is spiritually based, aims to assist people to become authentic and balanced within a shared energy and essence, and create alignment with natural order. Client-centered approaches, psychodynamic approaches and Adlerian approaches may all be used, but the focus in these approaches are individualistic versus collectivistic, so counselors must be sure to adjust the therapeutic intervention appropriately for the client.  An additional consideration with the African American culture may be exploring their feelings about coming to counseling and how it will be beneficial to them.   They may see counseling as intrusive.  We all know if a client doesn’t believe in counseling, we have to help them see a benefit to it.  You may also work with clients to define goals and problem-solving solutions, since this population of clients may be mistrustful of counselors and the counseling process.  It is important to establish equality in the therapeutic relationship, and assess assets the client has such as support systems, family, community resources, such as church or social networks.

Recognizing differences in backgrounds is important.  The movie “The Color of Fear,” made a significant impact on me.  It is a documentary in which they gathered a diverse group of individuals together for a dialog about the state of race relations in America as seen through their eyes.  I facilitated diversity awareness training in my last career, so I thought I was pretty aware of aspects of relating to diversity and inclusion, but the impact of this movie touched me in a much deeper and more meaningful way than I could have imagined.  There is a part where an African American woman said she did not want any excuses for others’ behavior, she just wanted her boss to “walk with her in her pain” (video clip).  This was an eye-opener for me.  This clip is from  The Last Chance for Eden documentary, which is a follow up to the Color of Fear series.  Being a white woman, who is “clinically and eternally” optimistic, I catch myself trying to smooth things over, see the best in people and trying to come up with reasons, or root causes as to why things may be a certain way.  So, when the woman in the video made that statement, “walk with me in my pain,” it hit me like a ton of bricks.  A light bulb went off and I said OH! I get it now — No excuses; just experience your hurt and injustice and be there for you, okay, I can do that.  Being color-blind  towards racial-ideology is invalidating to clients’ experiences, so when you validate their ethnic and cultural background this works to build rapport.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I don’t see color or I am colorblind.”  This statement may be an attempt to be seen as open-minded, but it is limiting and dismissing to people of color.  Our differences make us unique, recognizing and embracing these differences opens your diversity lens rather than blending everyone together.

Before I had seen these videos, and when I was new to counseling I had an interesting experience.  One of my African American clients was discussing her situation and I tried to offer my experience of a situation that mirrored hers, an a way to see the light at the end of the tunnel; my intention was to show empathy.  She said, “it may be similar, but you are white.”  It took me off guard for second, but she was right, as much as I could empathize the situation, I still would never truly know what it was like for her.  So, now instead of trying to come up with solutions or reasons for a behavior, or event, I just listen, and walk with my clients in their pain.  This is a good practice in general for counselors that sometimes can be overlooked if we are too solution-focused.  So many times our clients have spent much of their life not being validated for their feelings and thoughts.  When we offer them that time, that space to be heard and understood, they can begin the process of healing and begin to see resolutions more clearly.

In Multicultural Counseling remember the importance of not trying to find a one size fits all approach for clients, no autopilot allowed!  If you aren’t equipped, help them even better by referring them to someone who can!  Then, get some training and experience and do your research so that when you come across that population again, you won’t have to refer.

Additional Resources to Open your Diversity Lens

What is Diversity? From Diversity@Work Morgan Spurlock 30 Days Series

Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development

Diversity and depression by Lynn Shallcross

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