Mental health counseling and cultural competence: How can culturally sensitive care levels be enhanced?

Although much focus within healthcare falls on our physical health, the public seems more aware of mental health issues than ever. With around 57.8 million people in the US suffering from mental health issues in 2021, you can see why this has become a hot topic. You can also grasp why people are paying more attention to their mental well-being currently than they might have done before. 

Mental health counselors are crucial to helping people deal with any issues they are experiencing mentally in a safe, effective way. These trained professionals work with people from all backgrounds and all sections of society to promote the best possible patient outcomes. 

This ability to engage with people from a varied range of cultures is critical to working in this role successfully. With this in mind, major efforts have been made recently to enhance cultural competency in mental health counseling in a bid to deliver more culturally sensitive support. 

If you plan to move into this niche within healthcare, understanding other cultures and being able to engage with them is a must. It is also a must to first get the training you need to work as a qualified, legitimate mental health professional. 

How do you become a mental health counselor? 

Before we look at cultural competency in more detail, any would-be mental health counselor needs to know how to break into the industry. This is a very responsible job and one that needs the right training, skills, and credentials to do it successfully. 

Wherever you plan to base yourself as a professional in this sector around the country, studying for a relevant academic qualification is the first thing to do. This is especially true if you are targeting major US states with large populations and higher rates of mental health disorders to work in. 

New York State is a case in point and a popular choice for those looking for the latest opportunities to work in this field. Looking into how to become a licensed mental health counselor in NY shows that studying a course at St Bonaventure University online is a good call. This is because their online MSED in Clinical Mental Health Counseling provides excellent academic learning and the latest knowledge in key mental health counseling areas. 

One of these is cultural competency and the importance of showing these skills as a modern counselor. But what exactly do they refer to, and why are they so important? 

What is cultural competency in mental health counseling? 

Getting the right level of care is crucial for people who suffer from mental health issues. Key to this is access to care that demonstrates outstanding cultural competency. It refers to those who provide counseling for mental health issues and being able to interact sensitively with people from diverse cultures. 

By working to show good cultural competence, professionals in the sector are able to consider how a patient’s culture may influence their mental health and develop a plan to treat them accordingly. Good cultural competency also means mental health counselors can connect with patients from any background and show compassion towards them. 

This will help the patient feel comfortable, valued, and more open to talking about their issues with the counselor. It also helps them to build trust with their mental health counselor and feel they really care about them as a person. All this is much better for providing effective treatment to people with mental health issues and improving patient outcomes for people across all cultures.

Cultural competency gives mental health professionals added insight

In addition to the above, making efforts to deliver culturally sensitive care can prevent counselors from causing accidental offense to patients via their words or actions. If you know that a handshake is considered rude in a certain culture, for example, you know not to do this when helping someone from this section of society. 

Taking steps to enhance cultural competency skills also means counselors can get a better handle on the stigmas and prejudice people from particular backgrounds may face on a daily basis. This gives a better insight into why they might be experiencing mental health issues and what may be the root cause of their problems. 

Perhaps the last major reason mental health counselors should offer culturally competent support is to provide the best help possible to every patient. If professionals in this sector do not offer help that is culturally sensitive, they may misdiagnose what condition the patient is suffering from or what is causing it. 

Some mental health disorders can present themselves differently in some cultures, for example, or only affect people from certain backgrounds. Enhancing levels of cultural competency helps counselors to have a better understanding of specific areas like this and to offer better support in turn. 

How can you provide culturally sensitive care in mental health?

There really is nothing like being able to help people who are struggling with their mental health and assist them in getting back on the right track. Anyone working in this sector will soon find they see patients from a wide range of cultures to whom they must offer the same high standards of care. 

The only way to achieve this and build stable, strong relations with patients is through showing excellent cultural competency skills and delivering care sensitive to all backgrounds. But how can this be achieved within the mental health counseling sector? 

Refine your cultural competency skills 

Before we look at how the overall health sector can deliver care in ways that are more culturally sensitive, it is key to focus on what professionals in this industry can do to help first. This is not to say counselors should be overly critical of themselves if they do not know every facet of every culture in their local area. It merely refers to recognizing that being culturally competent is key to their success and ability to offer the best care to all patients. 

Reflecting on your counseling skills in this way can also help you pinpoint where you could improve, examine your attitudes toward other cultures in a positive way and draw up an action plan on how you could refine your abilities in this field. 

This may, for example, simply mean being aware of cultural competency when dealing with people and asking questions about aspects of their culture that might help in their treatment. If you see people from a culture you do not know much about regularly, you could take the time to find out more about this section of society and what issues might cause them mental distress. 

Help colleagues develop their cultural competency awareness

Once you have worked on your ability to be aware of offering culturally aware help to patients and to enhance the skills you have to do it, you can support colleagues in their quest to do the same. The same can be true if you are still studying to move into mental health counseling and feel inspired to help other students become more culturally sensitive.

But how might this work in practice once you are qualified and working as a mental health professional? If you notice that certain colleagues seem unaware of the subject or dismissive of it, you could try speaking with them in private to explain how important it is. If you do this, try to focus on the positive it brings to patient care and not simply give them a lecture about it. 

For people who are open to working in a more culturally sensitive way but maybe need your help with doing so, you could pass on tips you use to do the same. Both these things can help you become a leader for this issue in your workplace and help raise the cultural competence levels shown by colleagues. 

Make cultural competency a key part of your workplace 

Another way to enhance cultural competency within mental health counseling is making it a key part of any work environment. This again sees you taking on a certain level of responsibility to become a leader in this area and set an example for others to follow. 

You may, for example, notice a poster visible to patients which reinforces dangerous cultural stereotypes or one which is not sensitive towards a certain section of society. By taking it down, you can avoid it causing offense to any patients from the culture involved and help your work environment become a better place. 

In addition, enhancing this part of mental health counseling may also involve speaking to senior management to drive change. For example, you may notice that your unit sees a lot of Hispanic patients whose English is not good but that none of the literature available to them is in Spanish. By speaking with your boss to flag this up and rectify it, you are helping to raise levels of cultural competency in your clinic or hospital.

Remove barriers to effective mental health counseling

To provide care sensitive to all cultures, you must first make it accessible. However, this is not always the case in some locations, and certain people from certain backgrounds cannot always access the help they need. Due to this, people from these backgrounds can feel excluded from getting support for mental health problems, and cultural competency in the sector can suffer in turn. 

But how can accessibility across mental health services be boosted in communities like this? It can often be most effective to start by engaging with the affected communities and learning more about what barriers they face. This could throw up some issues that mental health as a sector could resolve on a local or national scale. 

Hospitals or clinics which offer mental health support become well-known by people within them by engaging more with all communities in their area. This means they are not only aware of where to go for help when they need it but also much more likely to do so. 

More diversity within mental health counseling teams

In terms of the industry as a whole, continuing the efforts to drive up diversity levels within the workforce makes sense. When you consider that mental health counseling demographic figures by race show only just over 11% of working professionals in this sector are African-American, you can see why more effort is still needed in this area. 

There is no doubt that recruiting and retaining mental health professionals from diverse communities is a major plus for better cultural competence in the sector. This is because it leads to a workforce that more accurately reflects the society it serves and is better able to provide sensitive care to anyone who needs it. 

More diverse mental health counseling teams also means patients feel more welcome and at home. When they come for help from someone from their culture who understands their customs, it makes for a much more comfortable experience. 

This can help a greater number of people access the help they need, get more effective results, and interact with the mental health industry. Diverse colleagues can also share insights about their communities with others, which helps make the whole industry more inclusive as a result. 

Staff training can play a key role 

We have already noted that studying in the best academic courses when training to become a mental health counselor can see you pick up the latest knowledge in areas like cultural competency. Training is also key within mental health units and workplaces for staff already active in the sector.

This may include experienced counselors who qualified when cultural competency was not as important a topic or staff in areas like admin or IT who might not have come across it before. By running internal staff training on this subject, why it is important, and how to offer a more sensitive service to patients, mental health facilities can enhance the levels of support they provide to diverse communities in their local area. 

What barriers exist to providing more culturally sensitive help? 

When you consider the positive impact more cultural competency has on mental health services, the care they give to patients, and their connection with the communities they support, you would think it is something there would be no resistance to. Unfortunately, this is not true and some barriers to enhancing care sensitive to all backgrounds still exist today. But what are some of the most common examples? 

Perhaps the most obvious one is something we have touched on already – lack of interest in cultural competency within mental health or lack of awareness on the subject. If colleagues don’t care about enhancing their cultural competency skills or mental health units don’t seem to recognize it as a serious issue, this can have a major impact on how successfully it can be enhanced. 

What other barriers can impact enhanced cultural sensitivity? 

It is common to see limited resources to support better cultural competency being a barrier in mental health counseling. In simple terms, this often comes down to budgets and not having the money to invest in things that could enhance cultural awareness. Whether it is materials in a range of languages, interpreters for patients, or staff training programs, the resources needed to make positive changes to cultural competence in mental health counseling are not always there. 

Another common barrier to high levels of cultural sensitivity in mental health is a skewed view of reality within units, clinics, and hospitals. If a facility offering this sort of help thinks it is great at supporting diverse communities, it may not be inclined to put extra effort into improving. This is dangerous if the help they offer is poor in terms of cultural competency because they will never get any better at it moving ahead.

Enhancing cultural competency in mental health counseling is vital

There is no doubt that enhancing the levels of cultural competency in mental health counseling and taking steps to offer more sensitive, tailored help to diverse communities is crucial. This means they feel included in mainstream society and can access the best help when needed. Although there may be some tricky barriers to achieving this, as shown above, these are not insurmountable, and there are lots of ways mental health counseling as an industry can overcome them. This is something that it must push to do in the future to keep in touch with the society it serves.