What is Cultural Competence and Why Do Mental Health Professionals Need It?

Cultural competence is roughly defined as the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own. This skill is relevant in all facets of modern life, but is most necessary for those working in the helping profession. 

It is well established that in order to provide competent care, knowledge of cultural identity, beliefs, values and practices is necessary. Without such knowledge practitioners can do harm, however well intentioned. Without a basic understanding of others’ lived experience, how can one be an effective clinician or mental health worker?

Cultural competence is meant to be one of psychology’s key competencies. However, it is widely known and accepted that most institutions of higher education are struggling when it comes to ensuring their students are adequately culturally competent. That isn’t to say that there is any lack of effort, rather there seems to be a lack of structure. There is no set curriculum in the UK for cultural competence. With no standardization of content for this crucial topic, it is often left up to individual educators to teach out what they feel is most relevant or important. 

In addition to this lack of formalisation, there is also a deficit of educators with valuable lived experience who may be better equipped to support students in the development of their cultural awareness and competencies. A report by the Runnymed Trust indicates over 94% of university professors in the UK are white. This galling lack of diversity may have some way to go when it comes to explaining why cultural awareness education for students of psychology at university is not up to standard.

According to a 2016 BPS survey regarding representation in the field of psychology, it was found that of the BPS members who responded, 9812 are white, 181 black and 723 other. This means that white BPS members outnumber non-white by more than ten times. This inequality is especially concerning when considering that it is statistically more likely for those from a non-white background to require professional mental health support in their lifetime – many of whom have experienced trauma and subsequently arrived in the UK as refugees.

This begs the question – how can we ensure that all mental health practitioners, irrespective of race and background, are equipped with the cultural competence to serve diverse communities? 

Firstly, increasing diversity amongst the student body in the discipline is crucial. Simply providing students with the opportunity to learn with students from different backgrounds will improve cultural awareness and competence.

According to Dr Katrina Scior’s paper looking into racial bias in clinical doctorate applications, BME individuals constitute 9.4% of applications to clinical psychology training courses, but only 6.4% of successful candidates. This is not good enough. So whether this means creating new grants and scholarships or introducing a blind application process to eradicate implicit bias, it’s clear that more needs to be done. 

Secondly, recruiting a more diverse faculty for universities is key. You can’t be what you can’t see, which is why increasing the number of non-white professors and lecturers would be of benefit to all students. It’s not helpful learning in a homogenous environment. When everyone around you looks like you there is no opportunity for conflict or curiosity. A professor with a different background to you can help you to increase your awareness of other cultures and communities and their classroom will be a safe space to ask questions and explore complex, cultural topics. 

Finally, seek out opportunities to increase your cultural competencies yourself. If your university isn’t providing these for you, check out other avenues on your own. We’ve already looked at the fact that any mental health professional will be working with clients whose lived experience does not reflect theirs, but why should the burden be on the client to then fill in the gaps? If you, as a clinician, already have a working knowledge of a client’s culture and belief system it will make the experience of working together more pleasant and effective for the both of you. 

Well Ed’s Global Mental Health Educational Program is a comprehensive introduction to various cultural perspectives on mental health and mental healthcare. From working with post-conflict populations after the Balkan War to healing collective trauma in Sri Lanka, you’ll gain a global perspective in just one week. It’s designed to help you put theory into practice and to bring the abstract to life. 

This program does not profess to be an antidote to the lack of diversity and diverse perspectives being available in the UK. However, it is certainly a good place to start for those who are curious about other culture’s approaches to mental health care and treatment.