October 12, 2021

What is Culturally Sensitive Therapy?

In the late 1990s, the author Jhumpa Lahiri published a short story called Interpreter of Maladies in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of the same name. The story describes a man in India whose job is to translate patients’ colloquially expressed symptoms to their doctor on their behalf, and to do so without passing judgment. So, if a patient says they have bees in their ears, the man tells the doctor that the patient is experiencing hearing loss. Or if a patient complains of lightning bolts in their head, the man tells the doctor that the patient has headaches. Because he understands both the people’s way of thinking and the doctor’s way of thinking, he is in a unique position to help.

This is the essence of culturally sensitive therapy. 

Culturally sensitive therapy calls therapists to cultivate an understanding of their client’s ethnicity, background, and belief system to better understand the client’s needs. Culturally sensitive therapy also invites the therapist to reflect on their own cultural background, and any biases or barriers that may derive from that. 

Make no mistake—culturally sensitive therapy is more than a buzzword.  It applies to almost every client-therapist relationship, particularly as we come to better understand the mechanisms of intersectionality—i.e., the various identities by which people describe themselves and how they interact. 

Research has shown that applying a culturally sensitive framework brings real results. For example, a study revealed that Latino clients were less forthcoming during therapy sessions if the therapist was perceived as “cold” or “distant.” Thus, when treating a Latino client, the therapist might consider revealing more about themself to forge a bond. Similarly, certain Indigenous/First People cultures have rules against performing autopsies on their dead. But when a cultural-sensitivity-trained therapist can explain the importance of an autopsy with respect and care for the client’s perspective, an understanding can sometimes be reached. 

In practice, cultural sensitivity is quite simple. All that is required of the therapist is to tailor their approach to the specific client. We don’t fit into neat little boxes based on our external identities, but therapists can still start with a general idea of the major issues, concerns, and perspectives a client may have. As therapists, we are also trained to see nuance and to recognize, from body language and even a sort of sixth sense, when our clients are comfortable. Through a careful, trial-and-error, respectful approach, cultural sensitivity can be infused into the treatment framework. 

So how do you find a culturally sensitive practitioner? Usually they will identify themselves on their website as such. Further, as an educated mental-health consumer, you can also feel free to ask. Ultimately, the best way to gauge whether your treatment provider is treating you with the cultural sensitivity you deserve is to try them out for a session or two and see how you feel. If you get the sense that your therapist doesn’t understand where you’re coming from on a cultural level, you can ask them to recommend someone more well versed in culturally sensitive therapy.