Intercultural therapy

Written by Kate Norris
Kate Norris
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 7th March 2024 | Next update due 7th March 2027

Intercultural therapy, also known as multicultural therapy, is a form of talking therapy that is particularly sensitive to and addresses the importance of culturally diverse backgrounds within a therapy setting.

The approach recognises the following socioeconomic factors within minority communities as central to the therapeutic process. These include but aren't limited to; race, beliefs, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender identification, language and values.

History of intercultural therapy

The history of what we now recognise as intercultural therapy dates back to around the 1960s. It was here that, in the USA, conversations began that recognised that people of colour needed to identify themselves non-comparatively to white people and their Euro-centric values. A Black psychology and cultural competence model that focused on Afro-centric values for Black people was needed. This foundation set the context for cross-cultural/multicultural therapy.

These conversations gave rise to a change in language that established synonymous terms, such as cross-cultural psychotherapy and multicultural counselling, which separated and recognised the difference in Euro-centric values and Afro-centric values in the therapy space. The existence of these synonymous terms was essential in the development of therapy for Black people, who began carving out their own values and needs and identifying themselves within their own culture. Counselling for Black people and culturally diverse groups was established, and the movement started cultural competence in the field of psychology. 

While there were many contributors to the development of both Afro-centric values and multicultural counselling/cross-cultural psychotherapy, key contributors to the academic growth included: Joseph L. White, The ‘Father of Black Psychology', one of the founders of the Association of Black Psychologists, Derald Wing Sue, Stanley Sue, and Paul Pedersen. This body of work set the framework for what we now recognise as intercultural therapy.

Intercultural therapy in the UK 

Intercultural therapy was established in the UK in 1983 by the late Jafar Kareem, psychotherapist, founder and clinical director of Nafsiyat - the leading intercultural therapy centre in the UK. Intercultural therapy recognises that psychosocial progression has not been and remains unequal for all cultures, communities and backgrounds. It acknowledges that certain external circumstances affect different cultures such as racism, poverty, sexism, gender identity and refugee status. 

Because of these differing circumstances, and the historical lack of acknowledgement in traditional talking therapy, there is a high rate of mental health issues in ethnic minorities, who are often underrepresented in mental health professions. Intercultural therapy recognises these differences and provides an inclusive, safe environment to discuss issues - for example, depression, trauma and poor self-image - that have developed due to cultural inequality.

This type of therapy is understood as a mindset and style that counsellors can adopt to accommodate different mental health concerns of the individual, concerns that are rooted in cultural context within culturally diverse groups and communities that fall outside of the majority.

"For individuals with culturally diverse backgrounds, it is important to recognise cultural diversities and understand how intersectional experiences shape our view of ourselves and the world around us," says intercultural therapist Alex Lewis. 

As with all aspects of multiculturalism, it is important to note, that therapists should strive to be open to difference and diversity and not base theoretical work on euro-centric theories when they work with people from other cultures. Therefore, it is always important for the therapist to ask the client about their family heritage, their cultural upbringing and whether they were born in the same country as the therapist or not.

Counsellor Julie Sale (Accredited MBACP, Dip Couns, PTSD Dip, CBT Dip) in ‘Identity, culture and immigration'.

The therapeutic mindset of intercultural therapy recognises and is sensitive to both the similarities and differences in cultural aspects between you, the client, and the therapist. Establishing a connection with your therapist that places importance on culture is essential to providing a beneficial therapeutic experience.

Jafar Kareem established intercultural therapy as “taking into account the whole being of the patient – not only the individual concepts and constructs as presented to the therapists – but also the patients’ communal life experience in the world, both past and present. The very fact of being from another culture employs both conscious and unconscious assumptions – both in the patient and in the therapist."

When is this therapy recommended?

Intercultural therapy is generally recommended for individuals who are struggling with mental health concerns due to psychosocial issues. It can be beneficial to people from minority groups, including refugees and other culturally diverse communities persecuted by majority groups.

This style of therapy can be applied to various other types of counselling such as couples counselling, individual and family counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)  and many others. The main goal is to help you establish a healthy ethnic and cultural identity, possess self-acceptance and self-esteem, and equip you with the tools to work through any further difficulties that may arise. 

What to expect from your therapy sessions

Intercultural therapy is a form of talking therapy that focuses on working therapeutically with the individual experience of patients who are traditionally considered outside of the majority, placing the influence your culture has on your reason for seeking therapy at the forefront of treatment. It considers how different cultural experiences may affect the relationship in the counselling room.

To begin your therapy, you need to understand that your therapist is culturally competent, so both your culture and your therapist’s culture should be discussed early in the treatment. Establishing a trusting, respectful relationship between yourself and the therapist, even a bond, is essential to the success of intercultural therapy. 

Once you have established a positive working relationship, throughout your sessions your therapist will work with you to identify and understand your cultural beliefs and perspectives, and how the issue that encouraged you to seek therapy, is intertwined. During sessions, you should be considered as both an individual and as part of a group, and you may be asked to share your culture's collective narrative to help your counsellor see the wider perspective and recognise how external societal biases may negatively affect you. 

Intercultural therapists recognise their bias and understand that they have to adapt their role to accommodate your perspectives. At times it may even be appropriate to refer you to another therapist who is more suited to your needs, for example, a therapist who shares the same culture as you.  

How to find a qualified counsellor

Developing a sense of cultural competency is still a work in progress, so choosing a therapist who has intercultural therapeutic experience alongside professional training and qualifications is key. In addition, a professional who demonstrates particular cultural sensitivity and can demonstrate an understanding and awareness of your own cultural beliefs is essential for successful treatment. 

Finding someone you can connect with, discuss personal matters, and whose treatment goals align with yours is crucial in establishing a meaningful therapeutic relationship. These essential elements are usually discussed in an initial meeting before beginning treatment.

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