Imagine having to over-explain your experiences of discrimination to a therapist, just to have that very same experience invalidated. It’s as though what you’ve just shared did not happen. You’re left confused, feeling misunderstood, and questioning your reality. Perhaps feeling worse than before meeting your therapist, why would you even continue?
This surprisingly common experience highlights the importance of cultural competence—the understanding and acceptance of norms other than your own. This requires more than simply following a checklist; it requires the ability to openly embrace different ways of being, which at times, you may disagree with. In Canada, there is a clear—and striking—underrepresentation of ethnic and sexual minorities in the mental health profession. What are, if any, the practical consequences of this, one may ask?
The Ontario Health Study tells us that mental health services are consistently underutilized in minority communities. Interview-based research gives us some insight as to why. A common thread in these studies is that many individuals encounter varying forms of discrimination (i.e., both “microaggressions” and overt discrimination) from professionals and begin to feel like “therapy is not for them”.
Mental health does not discriminate—and as unfortunate as this is, the data suggests that your care provider may. While there is an active effort to understand and teach the ability to perceive and appreciate subtle differences in the cultural experiences of any given client, at times there simply may be no substitute for shared experience.
Demographic factors are not the only thing to take into consideration when selecting a therapist, but clients should not be made to feel ashamed if they choose to do so. By and large, most clinicians offer free consultations. Meet with them. See what they are like. Be explicit with your concerns and ultimately, you make the decision if you feel understood—whether the therapist looks like you or not.
Ola Kuforiji, M.A., is a registered psychotherapist (qualifying) at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. He provides therapy with for individuals and couples (with a special interest in ethnocultural and sexual minorities) under the supervision of Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C.Psych.