Miles Hall MA, LMFTA MHP
Culturally Sensitive Therapy
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Culturally sensitive therapy emphasizes the therapist's understanding of a client’s background, ethnicity, and belief system. Therapists can incorporate cultural sensitivity into their work to accommodate and respect differences in opinions, values, and attitudes of various cultures and different types of people. Cultural sensitivity also allows a therapist to gain and maintain cultural competence, which is the ability to first recognize and understand one’s own culture and how it influences one's relationship with a client, then understand and respond to the culture that is different from one’s own. The need for this understanding may be based on characteristics such as age, beliefs, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.
When It's Used
Cultural sensitivity practices can be applied to any type of therapy; these practices may help the client feel more comfortable, making the treatment more effective. Research has helped document the positive effects of cultural sensitivity practices and has also outlined examples of how therapists can be more culturally competent in their interactions with clients of different backgrounds. For instance, one study noted that therapy with Latino clients was less effective when the therapist was misunderstood as distant. Understanding and applying the cultural expectation of disclosing, for example, some personal information may help clients connect with their therapist. Other studies show that certain behaviors, such as familiar use of language and a general display of personable traits, can play an important role in some cultures; avoiding these approaches can alienate clients.
What to Expect
A culturally sensitive therapist follows guidelines for working with diverse groups of people and understands that racial, cultural, religious, gender, and sexual identities interact with one’s beliefs and behavior. The expectation and ultimate goals for both the therapist and the client are notable progress and improvement despite cross-cultural boundaries and differences. Because they have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills, therapists who successfully integrate cultural sensitivity practices into their treatment recognize and respect differences and can communicate and interact successfully with clients from diverse backgrounds.
How It Works
Advocates for cultural sensitivity believe that it is more effective to vary the therapeutic approach from person to person, depending on a client’s culture group, than to simply use the same standard treatment approach for everyone. Although therapists who practice cultural sensitivity may deviate from standard therapeutic methods, they must also adhere to their profession’s ethical guidelines, for example, when it comes to disclosure of personal information. While some therapists argue that highlighting differences between individuals may offend some clients, and therefore damage the therapeutic relationship, it is generally believed that openly showing respect for someone’s culture and beliefs can result in more effective treatment and a more positive outcome for both client and therapist.
What to Look For in a Culturally Sensitive Practitioner
Look for a licensed therapist or counselor who communicates an awareness of your culture, beliefs, and practices, and whose goals and expectations for treatment are in line with yours. At times, the practitioner must be able to determine whether it is appropriate to treat a particular issue any differently than if you were from the same ethnic or cultural group. Make sure you feel comfortable discussing personal issues with the practitioner, and expect anyone who is not familiar with your ethnic or cultural group to refer you to a more culturally sensitive professional.
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Barnett JE and Bivings Nd. Culturally sensitive treatment and ethical practice. American Psychological Association Divisions. Division 31: State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs.
Sue S, Zane N, Hall GC and Berger LK. The case for cultural competency in psychotherapeutic Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology. 2009;60:525-548.
American Psychological Association. Guidelines for providers of services to ethnic, linguistic, and culturally diverse populations. Accessed January 2, 2017.