Seeking support from mental health professionals can be incredibly daunting. In essence, psychotherapy requires that an individual meets with a stranger deemed to be an expert with the goal of being vulnerable and sharing what is most painful and troubling in his or her life. Common fears upon entering therapy include: “Will my therapist think I’m abnormal or flawed in some way? Will he or she understand why I feel the way I do? Will I be able to get my ideas across despite my nervousness?”
The act of walking into a room to face a stranger with all of the private hurt and suffering that one has been enduring can be terrifying. Nevertheless, it seems universal that human beings long to feel understood and psychotherapy is meant to be an avenue that offers such understanding within a safe and compassionate space.
The risk one is taking in counselling is that they may leave the session not feeling understood, resulting in even more suffering and psychological pain. For immigrant and refugee clients the stakes are even higher in seeking support from Western counsellors. Indeed, their concerns are warranted as the therapists’ understanding of their cultural context will in many cases be limited. It is not surprising that immigrant and refugee populations are often skeptical when considering participating in therapy. The expectation is to share with a therapist who is likely from a Western background issues that will only make sense through the appropriate cultural lens. However, from the interviews in this project there seemed to be interest in the therapeutic process in each of the cultural communities despite the apparent hesitance shown by participants.
Enough interest, in fact, that each of these communities offered sound advice for mental health workers regarding how to increase trust in Western counselling approaches among immigrant and refugee communities. For example, in regards to gaining an understanding of clients’ cultural background, the response was universal in that participants from each of the communities encouraged therapists to seek understanding about their clients’ culture as well as their clients’ own idiosyncratic experience with their unique upbringing. It seemed as though there is an expectation from the various cultural groups that individuals who work in mental health must put in effort so that they are knowledgeable about the cultural context from which their client’s issues and struggles arose. It is clear from the participant responses that an effortful and in-depth understanding the culture one is working with would be beneficial to both therapists and clients.
In a field in which the subjective experience is the foundation from which all therapeutic work is built, it only makes sense that therapists heed the sound advice from this project’s participants. One participant summarizes the intention of this project well by offering the seemingly obvious suggestion that therapists ask how/if their presenting issue is related to their cultural background. It is this specific line of inquiry that would undoubtedly be helpful not only in treatment planning but also in therapists’ ability to build rapport and trust with their clients. If there was ever any hesitation on therapists’ part regarding whether or not they should become a student of their clients’ lives and cultural background, may the insights from the participants in this important project convince them that this kind of education is essential to clients’ healing and recovery.