Why cultural competence matters in MFT – and how to build yours

Mental health professionals need to understand a variety of cultures (and, ideally, languages) to assess and diagnose properly.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Globe image [public domain] via Wikimedia CommonsIf you are a mental health professional (or are in the process of becoming one), developing cultural competence will help ensure that you don’t mistakenly diagnose a culturally-appropriate behavior as some kind of mental illness. It will enable you to recognize the difference between a client who is ashamed and one who was simply taught to avoid eye contact. And most importantly, it will enable you to provide treatment within a client’s cultural context without imposing your own values, either intentionally or by mistake.

Cultural competence — that is, the ability to provide effective services to people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds — gets built in a variety of ways. It is important to understand traditions and practices across a wide range of cultural groups, and you can’t possibly go to every single one of the places your clients will be from. In short, whether you ever travel or not, you need to internationalize your thinking.

But to really develop your cultural competence, you need to experience different cultures, both within and outside of your local area. To this end, many universities are ramping up their offerings (and their requirements) when it comes to truly experiencing the diversity of our world.

I teach in the Couple and Family Therapy Programs at Alliant International University in Los Angeles. To be sure, we are in one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Our student body reflects that, with students from a wide range of cultural, national, religious, and other traits that allow them to learn a great deal from one another when they share a classroom. Many of the benefits of study abroad can be achieved in classrooms just like ours. But a classroom is a controlled environment, and Alliant’s mission centers largely on both multiculturalism and internationalism, so we offer much more than just the classroom experience. We also offer cultural immersion experiences for our students in Mexico City, China, and India; we also have had students and faculty take part in a past Cambodia immersion.

The students who take advantage of these opportunities describe them as much more than professional development. They often describe them as life-changing.

Naturally, it is tough for faculty to teach from a fully-informed perspective if they have not travelled themselves. The need for cultural immersion is not limited to students, nor is it limited to a certain phase of one’s career. Times change and cultures change, and as professionals we need to stay in contact with these changes to best serve the clients with whom we work. In the past several years, I’ve been to Mexico City, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, and Europe, and many in our Alliant faculty have their own long list of recent travels. (As a group, we rack up a lot of frequent-flyer miles.) I can happily say that on each trip, I’ve learned far more about the local cultures than I ever could have understood from a book.

If you’re considering a career working in mental health, and are interested in developing your international and multicultural competence, I would strongly encourage you to check out Alliant’s programs. We have programs in six cities around California and in Mexico City, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. And many programs — including mine — are still accepting applications for this fall.

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