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April 29, 2024

Does it matter if your therapist looks like you?

When engaging with minority populations in therapy, emphasizing the significance of building a therapeutic bond, embodying cultural humility, and employing a multicultural perspective is crucial. This work can be undermined when the therapist is white. An overwhelming majority of therapists are white women, specifically. Though all therapists are taught to be multiculturally competent, the simple fact of not sharing a culture can be daunting. Clients may feel that they cannot share and end up leaving treatment. How can therapists of all cultures ensure cultural competency to aid them when their client is of a different culture?

I (Candace Morris) wrote this blog post to address these concerns, stemming from my own experience as a first generation, Korean American social worker. I strive to create an environment for my clients where they do not feel stigmatized for seeking care. My approach is collaborative, because I understand that my clients are the experts on their experience. I want them to feel empowered to access their emotions and story. To book with me and hear more about my approach, click here: Reach Out for Support | Contact Us | WOC Therapy

Therapeutic alliance

When working with Immigrant families, it is important to form a therapeutic alliance. A therapeutic alliance is a collaborative relationship. This is when a therapist functions as a guide who helps their client understand how beliefs and attitude interact with affect and behavior. It is important for a therapist to be warm, empathic and genuine. A therapist tailors interventions to each client’s unique needs, beliefs, behaviors and experiences. This strong therapeutic alliance directly affects improvement in symptoms and health status as well as satisfaction with care. The client will feel more confident about treatment when they see that their therapist truly respects their culture and values instead of imposing Western concepts of wellness on them. This can include remembering the value of collective healing and interdependent family dynamics, rather than an insistence on individuality.


Self-disclosure is when a therapist shares personal information with a client. Self-disclosure is an essential factor in interpersonal relationships, and can be important to intimate relationship development including a therapeutic alliance when working with racial ethnic minorities. This can be a controversial topic among social workers and counselors, but I believe that sometimes it’s important to share lived experiences to build connection and trust with clients. For example, as a therapist of color and being from an immigrant family, my personal stories can set my clients at ease that I personally understand what they are going through. This is a more grounded empathy than simply reflecting that I sympathize with their pain. In other arenas, if I disclose that I am actively educating myself on my client’s culture, they may appreciate my honesty in engaging with them and not pretending to be an expert on their values.


Intersectionality is acknowledging when looking at a client there are many aspects to consider. A client comes with their own race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. A consistent finding is that parental socioeconomic disadvantage being from an underserved racial or ethnic group, single parenthood and poor parental mental health are associated with reduced likelihood of initiating or completing mental health treatment. There are also reasons to expect intergenerational differences in lay beliefs between immigrant parents and their adolescent children. Adolescents adapt to their new culture at a faster pace compared to their parents because they participate more intensively in and interact with members of the receiving society more frequently than their parents. Immigrant parents with a relatively strong orientation toward the receiving culture can be expected to be relatively more likely to formulate internal attributions and solutions and less likely to formulate external attributions and solutions to emotional problems they may have relatively favorable attitudes towards mental health care.
However, opposite associations may be expected for parents with their relatively strong orientation toward their ethnic culture.

Black woman attending therapy.

Intergenerational barriers

Unfortunately, unmet mental health needs is a significant problem for adolescents. Although stigma is identified as a major barrier to the use of mental health services among youth, there is limited research on this topic. Research on racial ethnic differences and mental health stigma is also limited and even less is known about the role of stigma in the mental health service utilization of minority teens. Different themes to consider with this population are personal experiences with mental health issues, mental health knowledge, family conversations about mental health, peer conversations about mental health, and the perceived social consequences of using mental health services. Among this population there is a fear of stigmatization regarding mental health as well as uncertainty about what to expect from mental health services have also been identified as barriers to mental health treatment engagement. Racial/ethnic minority youths face greater risks for developing anxiety and depression and experience higher burden from disorder as they are less likely to receive adequate mental health services for these conditions or to have their needs met.

Cultural Humility

Cultural humility is important in social work practice when working with this population. This is a process of openness, self-awareness, being egoless and incorporating self-reflection and critique after willingly interacting with diverse individuals. Whereas cultural competence focuses more on ways of doing multicultural work. Cultural humility is an important part of a therapist’s multicultural orientation toward their clients and focuses on ways of being with clients that prioritize and value diverse cultural identities. The research has also suggested it is important to reflect on same race dyads and have other intersecting identities that may be less visible such as socioeconomic status, religion, and sexual orientation could impact the therapeutic relationship. It is important to understand that this work is about liberation from the devastating impacts of systemic racism and other forms of system oppression.

Multicultural identity & lens

Clients who belong to more than one cultural group must navigate the diverse norms and values from each of their cultural affiliations. Faced with such diversity, multicultural clients need to manage and organize their different and possibly clashing cultural identities within their general sense of self. This is important to understand and correlates to a client’s well-being. Multicultural social work practices are shaped by an understanding that the client’s cultural experience is complex and multidimensional, and that an individual’s identity may be shaped by the intersection of factors including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and age.

Strengths-based Perspective

The strengths-based perspective shifts the focus away from the specific negative, debilitating stereotypes and cultural narratives that may be associated with a client’s cultural, ethnic, and/or racial background, heritage or traditions. To sum up, promoting heightened awareness and revising service delivery for this demographic, persisting in destigmatizing mental health within minority communities, and consistently
integrating cultural considerations in their care are excellent methods of assistance!

-Candace Morris