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May 9, 2023

The Importance of Mental Health Professionals being Culturally Competent 

Dr. Charlotte V. Ijei, L.P.C., Ed.D.

Conscious and Subconscious Biases
(Hidden Biases of Good People)

Riddle: A man and his son are driving in a car one day, when they get into a fatal accident. The man is killed instantly. The boy is knocked unconscious, but he is still alive. He is rushed to the hospital and will need immediate surgery. The doctor enters the emergency room, looks at the boy, and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son!” How is this possible? 

 Congratulations if you were able to solve the riddle. We all have biases. Some of the biases are known to us and other biases hide very deep in the subconsciousness of the brain. Because we have all been socialized differently, it is hard to imagine anything other than what we know. 

The socialization process begins when children are in their early years. Because of bias, we often give our children misinformation, missing history, and biased history that leads to stereotypes about any groups whose cultures are different from our own. This information is reinforced by people, systems, and institutions we know, love, and trust, through continued stereotypes and distortions. Some of these institutions are family, neighborhoods, education, media, government, houses of worship, economics, and class. If we do not purposefully interact with, understand, and study people who are not members of our own groups, we carry those stereotypes throughout adulthood, and they become a part of our belief system. 

The way we were socialized can influence our decisions today, producing discriminatory outcomes. How we view others who do not share the same “cultural” norms as we do can interfere with decisions we make. If we are in a position of power to hire employees, we can form opinions about who can or cannot do the job based on subconscious and conscious biases that have not been dealt with, due to the thinking of what society considers as the norm to follow. Who and what influences our social group? People who do not believe or look like us are usually left out of our social circles if we do not get to know people unlike ourselves. The way we were socialized could keep us in our comfort zone, which causes us to make mental judgments about all others who do not “fit” within our social group. 

Mental health professionals cannot afford to take a chance of not understanding their clients or students “whole selves.” Understanding our own biases will ensure we are able to assist with the healing aspect of those whom we serve. 

For mental health professionals and school mental health professionals, cultural competency is the ability to provide mental health services that can acknowledge cultural differences between the client or student and the professional. The more the clinician knows about clients’ or students’ culture, ethnicity, or background, the more likely clients and students will feel comfortable in therapy. When the professional is culturally competent, having prioritized their understanding of a client’s or student’s background, gender, abilities, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious or nonreligious beliefs, and other factors, and connecting this important knowledge to mental health services, it enables clinicians to accommodate and respect differences in opinions, values, and attitudes. At the same time, it is important to be aware that no group of people is monolithic. 

The book, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, written by Mazarin R. Banji and Anthony G. Greenwald, talks about “mindbugs.” These are ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions. The eye receives, the brain registers, and the mind interprets visual and audio information. If we don’t bring these ingrained thoughts to the conscious level, they lead to negative stereotypes capable of oppressing certain cultural groups. For example, mindbugs can get in the way of mental health professionals’ ability to help in a crisis if they are unfamiliar with a client’s or student’s religious or non-religious beliefs. Therefore, mental health professionals must understand their own cultural biases to become culturally competent professionals. 

There will always be differences within the same cultural group. However, culturally competent mental health professionals are continually working on their own subconscious and conscious biases to support all their clients and/or students. We begin to understand the richness and beauty of the tapestry when the world connects, and we get to know and appreciate each other. 

By the way, what was your first thought about the riddle? Remember, we ALL have biases. 

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Charlotte Ijei

Dr. Charlotte V. Ijei, L.P.C., Ed.D.