Words such as culture, race, and ethnicity are extremely prevalent in counseling today. Counseling does not exist in a vacuum. We may sometimes feel that what is happening in the outside world is shut out of the counseling room, but it is not and has never been. Counseling and therapy exists to serve the needs of the people within our societies. We have all read, wrote, and heard about the importance of advocating for our clients. For many people, counseling provides the only safe space they may ever experience. Therefore, it is our privilege and duty to serve our clients.
Many clinicians believe that counseling should hold a neutral position. However, I beg to differ. First, the most basic fact is that we all share in the human experience which connects us, whether we choose to acknowledge this fact or not. The therapeutic process is also built on our abilities as counselors to connect and empathize with our clients. This concept was illustrated with the creation of Rogerian and existential therapies. Social factors affect all individuals and as such directly influences therapy as neither clients nor therapists checks their value systems at the door at the start of the sessions. Secondly, how do we help clients make sense of their experiences if they are unable to process all of their experiences in therapy? We all experience our worlds through our environments, relationships that we build, and stories that we create to make sense of our worlds. Therapy helps us to examine our stories and make healthy changes accordingly. And lastly, psychology and counseling, which is still heavily based on the medical model, has difficulties incorporating client experiences which are largely internal and individualistic. Many of the theories that are utilized are western, male-Eurocentric based and some of the diagnoses that are available do not fully facilitate the cultural experiences of the clients.
Counseling has a long history of being heavily influenced by the dominant white male culture. The models and theories were created around a particular cultural and racial identity and was not inclusive of minority groups. Hence, the creation of multicultural groups to help counseling become more inclusive and also to help counselors meet clients where they are socially, culturally, and racially. An important recognition about counseling is that it possesses an inherent power dynamic that may appear threatening to minority groups who are already uncomfortable with the counseling process. Adding the fears and social stigmas about therapy and mental health only highlights groups of people who critically need mental health services but are instead left underserved or unserved because our profession and practices do not meet these clients where they are.
The ironic thing that I have learnt about counselors are that our profession trains us to deal with trauma and difficult conversations with clients but we appear to be extremely uncomfortable with having these discussions amongst ourselves. If we are unable to have these discussions among our peers who are supposed to be aware of social and cultural factors, how can we be effective with clients who are struggling with these issues which maybe daily factors in their lives, thus making those conversations even more difficult?
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Counselors working with any minority groups will begin to understand the difficulties that these groups face. We begin to see the clients within their social and cultural environments and as a part of a fully functioning system. Minority groups that face discrimination will inadvertently experience discrimination in many forms, including microagressions as well as macroaggressions. When counselors utilize a humanistic approach and take into consideration these experiences that clients experience daily, we can begin to provide a more holistic approach to clients of minority groups.
Last month, my post discussed counselors becoming advocates for our clients because as we develop more awareness of our clients’ experiences, we can see how many groups are either marginalized, or unaware of the value of therapy, or do not have access to mental health services. Advocacy runs along a continuum, so advocacy can include something as simple as helping clients find community services or working with clients beyond the office.
In the continuing education course offered by the American Counseling Association (ACA) on multiculturalism and social justice, called Multiculturalism and Social Justice: A Revolutionary Force in Counseling and Psychology by Paul B. Pedersen and Manivong J. Ratts (Ph.D), the importance of integrating social advocacy in individual counseling is highlighted. We are unable to treat clients independently of their social and cultural environments because these clients do not exist independently of these environments. Pedersen and Ratts noted in their article that social justice highlights how social and cultural factors influences psychological health. As our society continues to diversify, remaining stagnant is not a possibility for counselors. Our daily newsfeeds threatens to overwhelm us with the constant barrage of information and tragedies that can take its toll on our psychological health. Pedersen and Ratts pointed out that social justice differs from multicultural counseling because social justice focuses on power dynamics, social equity, and forms of oppression whereas multiculturalism is individually focused and oftentimes, racially and ethnically focused. Social justice addresses forms of oppression within minority groups, which include gender, social class, sexual orientation, religion, women, disability, and age.
For the last few years in the field of mental health, mental health professionals have been encouraged to focus on cultural competencies. Quite frankly, culture is nothing new in our societies. After all, America was considered to be the ‘melting pot’ of the world. This term alone reflected the knowledge that this country is filled many different nationalities and cultures. However, this term reflected the dominant cultural themes that America is made up of many cultures and nationalities but they were all subjected to the dominant culture. As society continues to change, the demographics of the country has changed, but the institutions and systems have not changed. As members of society struggle to find their place in this new dynamic world, mental health services are essential to these groups. Members of minority groups are constantly greeted with fear and otherness as they struggle with creating their identities amidst the traumas they experience in a world that is now focused on bringing the past back to life.
If we are just able to see clients through their cultural experiences, this can change the way they experience therapy. We also have to be mindful that cultural experiences have individualistic properties. Therefore, it is essential to meet clients with openness so that we can share in their stories and experiences with them. Counseling is a highly personal journey and we should be willing to give our clients the freedom to experience the whole journey in safe and nonjudgmental spaces.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.