Clinician’s Corner: Well-being and African Americans

The importance of ethnic identity and religion among African Americans

Posted Jun 12, 2016

As a clinical psychologist and professor who teach courses on multicultural issues and diversity, my work often intersects with understanding how cultural factors impact the lives of African Americans. Research has historically discussed how spirituality and religion are central in the lives of many African American families. However, it is important to not assume that these cultural variables are significant to all African Americans.

A new study in the June issue of the Journal of Black Psychology (Ajibade et al., 2016) suggests that ethnic identity and religion are significantly important to the well-being of African Americans. Although this is not a new concept, I believe that its significance to African Americans is important to better understand disparities in African Americans seeking psychotherapy. The data consistently shows that African Americans under-use psychotherapy when appropriate compared to other ethnic groups. It is possible that the role of religion as a coping mechanism may result in African Americans delaying treatment seeking or having difficulties engaging in therapy when the clinician doesn’t acknowledge spiritual connections throughout the treatment process. According to Boyd-Franklin (2003), clinicians must assess the role of religion and spirituality when assessing the strengths and coping of African Americans.

Courtesy of
Source: Courtesy of

Ajibade and colleagues (2016) study found that ethnic identity (i.e., involvement and commitment to the traditions and practices of one’s racial and ethnic group) and religious commitment (participating in religious activities) were positively related to life satisfaction and meaning in life. The authors suggested that these results may indicate that ethnic identity serves as a protective factor in African Americans to circumvent the experiences of discrimination and promote psychological well-being.

Implications for Clinicians

According to Ajibade et al. (2016), counselors working with African American clients may want to assess the client’s racial/ethnic identity. By determining if the client has a strong ethnic identity it may help the clinician better understand if the client’s views towards his or her cultural group could be helping or hindering their therapy goals.

Additionally, clinicians could explore religious commitment and inquire if religion/spirituality are important to the client. By doing so, you are enhancing your cultural competency and improving your ability to connect with your client.

Finally, the study highlighted that the clinician could consider how ethnic identity and religion affects the client’s functioning and then consider how they may help promote optimal functioning.

All of these factors are important to understanding the client and may help with improving the therapeutic alliance.

Copyright 2016 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

About the Author

Erlanger Turner, Ph.D. – often referred to by his clients as Dr. Earl – is a Clinical Psychologist in Houston, Texas. He is also an Assistant Professor of Psychology and teaches courses on clinical psychology and multicultural issues. Dr. Turner specializes in child and adolescent disorders, parenting, and psychological assessment. His research interests focus on psychotherapy use, mental health equity, and access to behavioral health services for youth. He has published articles in scholarly journals and in national media sources such as New York Times, and Washington’s Top News.

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