- Many individuals prefer to speak with a therapist who shares their cultural or racial background.
- 5 percent of therapists are Black; only 0.1 percent are American Indian.
- A therapist's cultural competence can be gauged with a few well-chosen questions.
Finding quality mental healthcare can sometimes feel complicated and overwhelming, but the search is worth it: connecting with a therapist who’s the right fit can lay the groundwork for improvement in virtually all areas of life. For many individuals, finding a therapist who shares their background feels like an important factor in that fit.
Is treatment more effective with a therapist of the same background?
There is no empirical evidence that clients who work with therapists of the same race, gender, or cultural background have better outcomes. Nevertheless, many find it more comfortable to speak with a therapist who shares their racial or ethnic background. The comfort of talking to someone who may have some of the same experiences in life as you can build trust, which is among the most important building blocks for a successful outcome in any therapeutic treatment.
“As a clinician and client begin therapy there are many subtle cues that can help build a good rapport,” says Amber Thornton, a therapist who specializes in care for the BIPOC community in Washington, D.C. “They might find they have commonalities in the way they speak, the foods they grew up eating, a background in the church, or many other specific topics.”
“You don’t want to go into therapy having to do the education,” says Mackenzie Littledale, an author and mental health advocate in Florida. “If you can walk in and be understood, whether because the therapist is more sensitive to the microaggressions you might experience, or in other domains, it helps a client feel more comfortable.”
Research does suggest that clients find therapy more effective when treatment aligns with their culture1.
Where to find a BIPOC therapist
While Black and American Indian people make up nearly 15 percent of the population in the U.S., only 5 percent of therapists are Black and only 0.1 percent are American Indian, according to the American Psychological Association2. This discrepancy can make it harder for BIPOC individuals to find therapists in their area with availability.
Nevertheless, there are several ways to find treatment. The Psychology Today Therapy Directory lists credentialed therapists who can be filtered by location and ethnicity, as well as by the issues and treatments they specialize in.
Word of mouth can be a powerful tool. Ask friends or family members comfortable talking about the topic and what type of outreach helped their search in their geographic locale.
Digital communities can be another powerful tool. There are several listservs, or email groups, that help get the word out about mental health resources for BIPOC individuals, as well as Facebook groups and podcasts devoted to the topic. Community organizations and religious institutions may also have lists or other resources to help their members find mental health professionals.
It should also be noted that a therapist doesn’t have to be a person of color to provide excellent treatment for the BIPOC community. Conversely, a BIPOC therapist can be equally skilled in working with all races and ethnicities.
“It’s not always worth the wait if there are other clinicians that are experienced and can provide care,” Thornton says. “While it can be a great experience to have a cultural match, I don’t think it’s necessary as long as the clinician is culturally competent and aware of what that really means.”
Cultural competence, in this case, is the ability of a therapist to understand how their own background can influence their perceptions of a client and their challenges and to be intentional about how they respond to someone with a culture different from their own.
What to ask a prospective therapist
You’ll want to make sure any prospective therapist is credentialed and licensed and has experience with the challenges you’re facing.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers some questions an individual can ask at an initial consultation with a therapist to help gauge their level of cultural competence, such as:
- “Have you treated other Black people or received training in cultural competence for Black mental health? If not, how do you plan to provide me with culturally sensitive, patient-centered care?”
- “How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?”
- “Do you use a different approach in your treatment when working with patients from different cultural backgrounds?”
- “What is your current understanding of differences in health outcomes for Black patients?”
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Soto, Alberto, et al. “Cultural Adaptations and Therapist Multicultural Competence: Two Meta-Analytic Reviews.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 74, no. 11, 2018, pp. 1907–1923, https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22679.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). CWS data tool: Demographics of the U.S. psychology workforce. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/workforce/data-tools/demographics