How to Find a Culturally Sensitive Therapist

A culturally sensitive therapist will understand you.

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Finding a therapist who understands you is important. And a big part of feeling understood means finding someone familiar with your culture.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to find a culturally sensitive therapist. But first, it’s important to understand why doing so is worth the effort.

A Healthy Therapeutic Alliance

It’s important for a therapist and a client to have a therapeutic alliance. That means that the client feels heard and understood by the therapist and that they trust the therapist has their best interest in mind.

Research shows that a healthy therapeutic alliance is the most important factor in determining how effective treatment is. In fact, the relationship between the therapist and the client plays a major role in determining if the client gets better. Studies show the therapeutic relationship matters more than the type of treatment that is used.

Cultural Competence

A culturally competent therapist should recognize and respect the beliefs, perspectives, and values of clients from a particular race, ethnicity, or region.

A culturally sensitive therapist should be confident in their knowledge and skills. Their clients should also be confident that the therapist is able to address topics like white privilege or oppression.

Cultural sensitivity isn’t just about race. A culturally competent therapist should be comfortable addressing things like:

  • Age
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Disabilities that develop later in life
  • Indigenous heritage
  • National origin
  • Racial identity
  • Ethnic identity
  • Gender
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Sexual orientation

How Cultural Sensitivity Affects Treatment

Clients who don’t feel as though their therapist understands them are more likely to drop out of treatment early because they couldn’t form a healthy therapeutic alliance.

In addition to difficulty establishing a therapeutic alliance, a therapist who lacks cultural sensitivity may not use the best treatment approaches. Treatment should be tailored to a client’s specific culture and other needs.

Tailoring Treatment To a Client's Needs 

It’s important for a therapist to respect whether an individual comes for a collectivist culture or an individualistic culture. Treatment goals and strategies are likely to be quite different based on the person’s culture.

For example, most therapists in the West emphasize a collaborative therapeutic relationship. This may involve asking a client about their goals and needs as well as an open discussion about the frequency and duration of treatment.

While a therapist may make some recommendations, the client’s input is valued and they work together as a team.

This collaborative approach may be confusing or off-putting to clients from certain cultural backgrounds, however. Individuals from Eastern cultures may expect the therapist to be the “expert.” They may want the therapist to be more direct and authoritarian when it comes to offering feedback and advice. They may not appreciate open-ended questions as they may doubt the therapist’s competence level.

Another example is the use of cognitive behavioral therapy. It typically involves direct questions like, “What were you thinking when your friend turned you down?” Some Native Americans or older European Americans may find those types of questions to be disrespectful.

Therefore, a therapist should understand their client’s cultural background well enough to be able to tailor their approach accordingly.

All Therapists Aren't Culturally Sensitive

Many therapists never raise cultural issues with their clients—especially if the clients don’t bring it up first. A survey of 689 APA-licensed psychologists found that therapists addressed cross-ethnic/racial issues with fewer than half of their clients.

You might assume that a professional mental health provider with a license and degree has an understanding of different cultural perspectives but that’s not always the case.

Therapists receive different training depending on where they went to college or what type of degree they have. While one therapist may have a master’s degree in social work another may have a Ph.D.

Each college, degree, and licensing board sets its own standards for how much training is needed in working with diverse populations.

There isn’t a “cultural competence” test either. So while a therapist may have completed a diversity class, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be culturally sensitive.

Additionally, most licensing boards don’t mandate that therapists attend ongoing training in diversity. So while most therapists do continue to attend classes and courses to keep their licenses up to date, they may not receive ongoing training in cultural issues once they graduate from college.

Finding a Therapist for You

It’s important to find a therapist who you think will be able to identify with you. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to have the same background or that they need to be the same race. Instead, look for someone who makes it a priority to be culturally sensitive.

Shop Around

There are many ways to find a therapist. Ask your physician for names of therapists, look at online directories, and ask friends if they have anyone they recommend. If you choose online therapy, you can usually request to work with someone who understands your culture.

Ask Questions

When you find a therapist you may want to work with, ask questions. Ask them how familiar they are with your culture or background. Ask them about their training and education in working with diverse populations. Some therapists offer free phone consultations where you can ask such questions or you might use your first appointment to ask questions as well.

Change Therapists If Necessary 

If you feel like you aren’t a good match with your therapist, you can always change to a different provider. Express your concerns and ask for a referral to someone who you might work with better. Most therapists will be happy to help you find someone who is better suited to treating you.

A Word From Verywell

You aren’t likely to make progress in your treatment if you feel like you have to educate your therapist on your cultural background or the societal issues you face. That’s why it’s important to find a culturally sensitive therapist who understands your needs.

Finding the right therapist for you will take some extra effort. But, it’s likely worth the work. When you find someone who understands you, you’ll be much more likely to make progress in treatment. 

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