Multicultural therapy is an approach to treatment in which we recognize and talk about the importance of the cultural identities that we all hold. Culture is the frame that we use to look at the world. That can mean shared language, history, music, and art and most of us are members of multiple cultural groups simultaneously. Culture shapes the expectations we have of how to live in the world. It influences how we relate to our families, to our communities, and to the natural world.
Culture also shapes our ideas about health and illness. For example, people of color (Black, Asian/Asian American, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Native, and Latinx people) are more likely than white people to recognize physical symptoms of mental illness (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, fainting, etc.) before recognizing the emotional and mental symptoms. Healthy family relationships may look different across racial, ethnic, and religious groups. In some cultural groups, grief is processed with shared crying, singing, or dancing whereas others tend to see public displays of emotion as seen deeply private or embarrassing.
Another important piece of multicultural therapy involves integrating an understanding of privilege and oppression into therapy. For people of color in the United States, the racism and discrimination we face can be blatant and violent or it can be subtle and ambiguous. We know that racism shapes our interactions with healthcare providers, financial institutions, the criminal justice system, and education. Scientific research continues to demonstrate the ways in which the big and small experiences with discrimination and oppression have a profound effect on our health. These big and small experiences could look like having your pain minimized by your doctor, having teachers doubt your abilities in school, or they could look like spending your middle school years helping your immigrant parents navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of moving to the United States.
It’s crucial that we seek therapy in an environment where we can be sure we’ll be heard, believed, and valued for our particular cultural values and experiences. When you seek a therapist who has a multicultural specialty, it means that they’ve spent time acknowledging their own biases, examining their own cultural identities, and learning about the various issues that impact people of color. Multicultural therapy is typically not the only approach that a therapist uses; it is generally combined with other forms of therapy (for example, cognitive behavioral therapy or specialized trauma therapies) to meet the needs of diverse populations in a culturally responsive way.