Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Getting comfortable with conversations about race and ethnicity in psychotherapy

Cardemil, E. V., & Battle, C. L. (2003). Guess who’s coming to therapy? Getting comfortable with conversations about race and ethnicity in psychotherapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34, 278-286.

This article urges therapists to engage in open conversations with their clients about race and ethnicity as it applies to the client, the therapist, and the therapeutic alliance. By taking a more active stance and initiating such discussions, especially early in treatment, the therapist may enjoy improved treatment retention, therapeutic alliance, and treatment outcome. After defining race and ethnicity as similar but distinct constructs, the article acknowledges that such conversations will vary in terms of frequency and intensity over different clients and times. It then goes on to provide six recommendations for becoming more comfortable and knowledgeable with having such discussions.

First, it is acknowledged that a client's racial/ethnic background may not be obvious and that it is best to suspend preconceptions about a client and their family members. It is recommended that clients be asked early on in therapy how they identify themselves. Second, it is acknowledged that wide variability exists within racial and ethnic groups and that a client's racial identity development and acculturation process may change over time, thus affecting therapy. Third, it is important to consider how the therapist's own racial/ethnic background may affect the therapeutic process in terms of differences in communication styles and conceptualization of mental health/illness, self, and family/community. Fourth, it is acknowledged that racism, power, and privilege can affect the therapeutic process and that failing to acknowledge such societal issues may invalidate a client's painful personal experiences. Fifth, it is recommended that a client expressing reticence and/or frustration with the topics of race and ethnicity be met with an open and non-defensive explanation that such topics are relevant to many clients, but needn't be pursued if they are found irrelevant or uncomfortable. Lastly, resources for further education/training in race and ethnicity are provided.

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