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University of Redlands School of Education

Importance of Multicultural Competence in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

The Importance of Multicultural Competence in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Clinical mental health counseling is a rewarding, albeit challenging, professional field that finds its firm foundation in the service of others. Mental health practitioners aim to positively impact the well-being of their clients through therapeutic counseling services. With the combined effects of COVID-19 and ongoing social injustices that have been rightfully elevated into the national consciousness, the need for competent and compassionate mental health practitioners is greater than ever.

Counselors typically interact with a community of clients that represent a multitude of racial, cultural, demographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Accordingly, they are called to continuously improve their ability to serve such a diverse population to the best of their ability. 

This creates a vital need for practitioners to develop and continuously refine multicultural competence in their practice in order to effectively carry out their responsibilities. Keeping this goal close to the core of one’s professional practice boldly aims to address long-standing disparities in mental health care.

What Is Multicultural Competence?

Multicultural competence can be described as “the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.” This simplified definition of the concept reflects the goal to be able to connect with and understand others more authentically, acknowledging and honoring the differences between one another.

Unlike a degree or certificate that is achieved once, multicultural competence is a continuous, lifelong process of improvement and learning. It has no end date or a clean set of requirements that can be met in order to qualify oneself as “culturally competent.” Rather, Counseling Today describes the approach to multicultural competence as: “You obtain it, and then you maintain it.”

Laying Down Your Own Biases

First and foremost, mental health counselors must operate with a realization that their worldview and experiences differ from the client in front of them. They may have different perspectives and approaches to navigating their daily lives. Accordingly, approaches to treatment cannot simply be rooted in one’s own biases because this renders therapeutic services ineffective, and potentially damaging. Culturally competent mental health counselors must, in effect, be able to suspend judgment.

Courageously opening yourself to step aside from your worldviews allows you to become a stronger ally to the client, building a more authentic, trusting relationship. This takes extensive honest self-reflection to understand where you may differ from your client and how those differences could impact your ability to provide services.

Increasing your self-awareness helps you to also know when you would not be the best fit to work with a client. It is important to avoid referrals whenever possible, as this can be detrimental to the client’s motivation to seek therapy. However, being in-tune with yourself and seeking advice from colleagues and supervisors leads to better-fit counseling relationships that holistically serve your clients.

Steps You Can Take to Become More Culturally Competent 

Seek Professional Development

Dive into resources about and conversations with the different populations in your community that you serve. This can be done with the goal to understand the factors that may comprise or influence their identity: race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, geographic location, immigration status, and more. There is also great reward in learning more about cultural competence as a subject and how it intersects with the clinical mental health counseling profession.

Stay humble in your pursuit of continuous knowledge seeking. You will never know everything; it is impossible. But striving for continuous self-improvement by interacting with and understanding others is always worth the effort for your clients.

Avoid Assumptions 

In the counseling relationship, it is important to address the sociocultural factors that impact or comprise your client’s identity. However, these factors may not always be influential in the presenting issue during the counseling sessions. Allow the client to lead as you build your understanding of what is happening in their life, directing which of these elements should be examined and impacted by counseling techniques.

Furthermore, assumptions about your clients should be avoided both when you do and do not share sociocultural identities or worldviews. It cannot be assumed that your personal experience mirrors that of your client, so again, the client must lead here in expressing their presenting issue. Mental health counselors should take a step back to absorb this information from the client’s perspective.

Modify Modalities

Because the clients you will serve likely come from a range of different backgrounds, it is imperative that your therapeutic counseling techniques do not follow a blanket approach. A level of flexibility is needed to be able to tailor the sessions to best serve the client or appropriately change course during the course of the counseling relationship.

This also intersects with reviewing materials you use in your counseling practice. For example, all intake documentation and screening tools should be examined for potential biases that could be detrimental or ineffective to the counseling relationship from inception.


Why is Multicultural Competence So Important?

Our communities are becoming increasingly diverse. This elevates the importance of infusing multicultural competence into a clinical mental health counseling practice in order to effectively and empathically serve our client base.

Furthermore, keeping multicultural competence as a focus plays a greater role at the macro level in our communities. It aims to address long-standing inequities in the quality and access to vital mental health services for minority groups. This effort seeks to build trust that has been absent due to historically poor and underfunded treatment to these groups.

Better Serve All Clients With a Culturally Competent Mental Health Counseling Practice

Multicultural competence is an essential component of the clinical mental health counseling field and has increasingly become a focus for the profession in order to address disparities in mental health services. Multicultural competence is a 21st Century skill for counselors and therapists to be able to serve their diverse client community in a manner that authentically supports their wellbeing. 

Begin your journey as a mental health counselor by learning about the social justice-focused Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of Redlands.