Cultural Competence in Counseling

Cultural Competence in Counseling

Cultural Competence in Counseling: A Pillar for Mental Health Counseling Education

As we enter into Black History Month, it’s important to think about the importance of diversity in the clinical mental health counseling space.

If you’re considering becoming a clinical mental health counselor, you need to learn about more than just mental health conditions and therapeutic techniques – it is essential that you also learn cultural competence in counseling.

Cultural competence is a critical skill set that is needed to effectively help clientele from diverse backgrounds improve their mental health and live happier, more fulfilling lives. Through cultural competence, mental health counselors use cultural awareness and knowledge to better understand and support their clients.

Here is an overview of what it means to be a culturally competent counselor today and how practitioners can use this skill set to better meet the mental health needs of their clientele. It’s also important to choose a mental health counseling master’s program that teaches you how to become a culturally competent counselor.

What is cultural competence in counseling?

When a counselor has cultural competence, that mental health professional understands how a client’s cultural background shapes who they are as a person. They are also sensitive to the unique needs of that client based on their cultural identity, and they can provide counseling responses and therapies that are tailored to those needs.

In terms of cultural competence, a client’s cultural background can refer to a number of different things, including but not limited to their:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Sexual orientation / gender identity

Below is the definition of cultural competence drafted by the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (OMH), which merged several existing definitions (as cited in the report “Improving Cultural Competence: Quick Guide for Clinicians”):

“Cultural and linguistic competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations. ‘Culture’ refers to integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups. ‘Competence’ implies having the capacity to function effectively as an individual and an organization within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs presented by consumers and their communities.”

Cross-cultural competencies and objectives were initially established for the counseling industry in the early 1990s. Since that time, they have become an important component within counseling literature, and they have been recognized as a critical element to the work of mental health counselors today.

While the modern-day standards for multicultural competence within the counseling industry are
extensive and complex, we’re providing a quick, high-level summary on what this looks like in

3 Key Elements of a Culturally Competent Counselor

1. Cultural Awareness & Understanding

To be culturally competent, a counselor should have knowledge and understanding of different cultures (e.g., different ethnicities, religions, the LGBTQ+ community, etc.) and the history of cultural oppression in the United States and related social movements.

According to “Elements of Culturally Competent Counseling” published in the American Counseling Association’s Professional Counseling Digest in 2008, the period of history that is especially important to evaluate spans immediately following World War II continuing through the second half of the 20th Century, which represents a significant change in American society when groups that had been historically marginalized and oppressed started to take a stand for social, economic, and political inclusion.

With historical context, counselors can better understand the attitudes, behaviors, and values of certain groups of people, and they can help their clients address the impact of life experiences such as immigration, racism, oppression, stereotyping, and poverty.

According to the cross-cultural competencies and objectives that have been adopted within the counseling industry: “Culturally skilled counselors understand how race, culture, ethnicity, and so forth may affect personality formation, vocational choices, manifestation of psychological disorders, help-seeking behavior, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of counseling approaches.”

It’s also important for counselors to be familiar with the latest research findings on the mental health conditions that are common among specific cultural groups, as this can assist with more informed counseling interventions.

2. Cultural Self-Reflection

In addition to being aware of other cultures, mental health counselors should also have an understanding of their own cultural identities, particularly looking at the values, assumptions, and biases that may be shaped by those backgrounds.

According to “Improving Cultural Competence: Quick Guide for Clinicians” published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and sourced from TIP 59, counselors who have a high level awareness of their own cultural backgrounds are more likely to:

  • Pay attention to how culture impacts the client-counselor relationship
  • Evaluate the ways in which their own experiences, beliefs, and biases affect their classification of what is “normal” and “abnormal” behavior
  • Be more intentional in understanding how a client’s cultural background impacts their mental health condition, their relationships, and the therapeutic process

Counselors who are not self-aware and self-reflecting in terms of their cultural background may have a skewed perspective that affects their impression, diagnosis, and treatment of a client.

3. Removal of Cross-Cultural Barriers in Practice

Cultural competence in counseling is not a box that can simply be checked off — rather it’s a skill set that requires ongoing learning and development. Culturally competent counselors continually strive to expand their cultural awareness and understanding through education, training, and consultation with other experts in order to mitigate any cross-cultural barriers that may exist in their counselor-client relationships.

Additionally, counselors should be able to identify when cross-cultural barriers impede them from providing the proper support that the client needs, such as there is a language barrier or when the client would benefit from working with a counselor of the same cultural background. In these cases, the counselor should refer the client to an appropriate mental health care provider.

Counselors who are culturally aware are able to identify potential gaps in care and address those needs in order to provide clients with the best possible outcomes.

Cultural Competence Training is a MUST for Counseling Education

In a climate of ever-increasing diversity and heightened awareness around social justice, it is imperative for counselors to be equipped with the cultural competencies necessary to deliver quality and equitable mental health services — and it starts in counselor education.

As you search for a mental health counseling master’s program, make sure that the program includes education on cultural competence so you are prepared to meet the needs of diverse clientele.

West Coast University’s Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program provides education and training that helps prepare students to become culturally competent, trauma-informed, and stalwart advocates for social justice.

One of our program learning outcomes is to “Cultivate a Culturally Competent Identity,” which means the program helps students establish a professional identity as culturally competent clinical mental health counselors. Through this outcome, students learn how to use the therapeutic relationship to promote healing, empowerment, and emotional and mental well-being while working effectively and affirmatively with diverse individuals, couples, families, and communities.

Here is a quick snapshot of the program details:

  • Program: Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Instruction Method: Online or Blended
  • Program Pace: 29 Months
  • Semesters: 6 Semesters
  • Credits: 60 Credits

Learn more about the mental health counseling master’s program at WCU, including information about curriculum, tuition and financial aid, and admission requirements.

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.