Cultural Training Increases Competence Of Nonminority Psychologists

Published: December 29 2003


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Traditional thinking holds that psychologists with ethnic or racial backgrounds like those of their minority patients may be better suited to counsel them.

University of Florida researchers have determined that often is the case, but a new study has found that nonminority counselors who receive multicultural training can overcome and adapt to those differences in order to treat minority clients effectively.

The findings come at a time when a growing number of people of all ethnicities are seeking psychological help to deal with the stresses that accompany today’s economic uncertainty, increasing family and job pressures and other societal demands. Minorities account for more than a quarter of those who seek services from public mental health facilities, yet just 14 percent of U.S. psychologists have ethnically diverse backgrounds, according to the American Psychological Association, or APA.

“This old notion of cultural matching – a Hispanic client should see a Hispanic therapist because someone of a different race would not understand them – is clearly called into question by this study. Multicultural counseling skills are definitely trainable,” said Greg Neimeyer, a UF psychology professor who conducted the study, which appeared in the October issue of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development.

“More critical than someone’s race and ethnicity is their awareness of that difference and their capacity to adapt themselves to the ethnic characteristics of the clients they work with,” he said. “That challenges us to not operate on the basis of simple prejudice or cultural stereotypes.”

In 1992, three-quarters of psychology doctoral programs did not require even a single minority-focused course, and one-third of students spent less than 5 percent of their time with minority clients. While those numbers have increased during the past decade, training in multicultural counseling remains only minimally available at most institutions, according to the APA.

For the study, Neimeyer evaluated 87 counseling students entering 27 doctoral programs around the country in 1998. He used a self-reported questionnaire that included a demographic survey and a 45-item standardized multicultural counseling competency measure that was appropriate for each participant’s racial background. Respondents were divided into a white and a nonwhite group, which included black, Asian and Hispanic individuals, and were evaluated in two areas: racial identity development – the awareness of one’s own ethnicity and its impact on others, and multicultural counseling competency – the skills necessary to effectively treat diverse clients in a therapeutic context.

Two years later, the participants completed the same survey again, and their responses were evaluated in the same domains. While the nonwhite group showed a higher competency for multicultural counseling at both times, the gap in the skill difference between white and nonwhite trainees narrowed across time with multicultural training and experience, Neimeyer said.

“Counselors with diverse ethnic backgrounds have a heightened awareness of their own racial identity, which allows them to be more sensitive to issues of diversity and the experiences that go along with being a minority in the American culture,” Neimeyer said. “Consequently, they are better able to identify with multicultural clients. On the other hand, work such as this suggests that these skills are trainable, and therapists can enhance their cultural competence regardless of their own ethic backgrounds.”

Further research is required to determine the cause-and-effect relationship between racial identity and counseling skills, but the study showed there was a strong correlation between racial identity and effective multicultural counseling skills in both groups of participants. After two years both groups gained more skills, but the nonwhite group’s competency increased the most, Neimeyer said.

The study points to the importance of not falling prey to stereotypes about an individual’s ability to treat a patient of different ethnicity: Cultural awareness and adaptability may be more important than sheer demographics, Neimeyer said. For instance, a white counselor needs to be sensitive to a Hispanic client’s differing views on family life and the implications of such values in dealing with psychological issues, he said.

Training is needed that focuses on providing awareness of counselors’ own ethnicities, as well as the ethnic experience and background of those with whom they will be working, he said.

“Therapy is not a one-size-fits-all practice, so it is imperative to be aware of the different cultural reactions to therapeutic methods,” he said.

The study also highlights the need for multicultural training to address other areas of racial identity, said Nadya Fouad, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

“This research bolsters the need to focus on a more broadly defined idea of diversity – including sexual orientation, disability, religion and gender in addition to race – because it has such strong sociopolitical reactions in this country,” she said. “Racial identity development is a complex construct and it may progress differently for people of different backgrounds and experience.”


Kim Hart
Greg Neimeyer,, 352-475-5671