The Importance of Local Cultural Context in Shaping EAP Counselling | EAPA-SA

Counselling is a form of talking therapy that entails a trained therapist listening and helping a patient to find ways to deal with emotional issues. Counselling can also be used to treat certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Counselling is a highly individualistic experience – “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work. More than taking each patient’s unique persona into account, a counsellor needs to consider each client’s culture and the ways in which it might affect the counselling process.

“Counselling is a highly individualistic experience – “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work”

“Multicultural counselling acknowledges how various aspects of a patient’s cultural identity might influence their mental health”

What is multicultural counselling?

Multicultural counselling is a term used to describe a specific type of counselling practice that acknowledges how various aspects of a patient’s cultural identity might influence their mental health. Pertinent factors can include issues of race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, socioeconomic background, and gender identity. Multicultural counselling is a helpful in situations where the therapist assists in addressing the struggles of a client whose race, gender, socioeconomic background, religion, or any other part of their identity does not align with the majority.

Using a multicultural counselling framework is a two-way street – it benefits both the therapist and the client in that it empowers the counsellor to be aware of how their own background affects their therapeutic style, and it helps them better understand their clients’ needs.

Multicultural counselling in EAP

The counselling provided by an EAP providers is structurally very similar to counselling accessed in other ways, with the short-term nature of EAP counselling lending itself to being more of a solution-focused service. South Africa is culturally a very diverse country, which presents challenges for EAP counsellors as they thoughtfully consider their patients’ unique characteristics and differences from a position of knowledge and insight. EAP counsellors who use a multicultural framework are well positioned to do much good; and multicultural awareness in EAP counselling can lead to positive holistic outcomes in the intervention.

“EAP counsellors who use a multicultural framework are well positioned to do much good”

Why is multicultural counselling important?

For counselling to be successful, it must align with a person’s beliefs and values. If a therapist does or says something that their patient finds inappropriate or disrespectful, it can damage the therapeutic relationship. Cultural understanding and sensitivity helps clients to feel more comfortable, making it easier to open up without fear of judgment. Culture involves so many different elements.

In 1997, counsellors Michael D’Andrea and Judy Daniels established the “RESPECTFUL” model, which highlights ten multicultural factors that therapists might consider in their work.

“Culture involves many different elements”

R – religious/spiritual identity

E – economic background

S – sexual identity

P – psychological maturity

E – ethnic / racial identity

C – chronological / developmental challenges

T – trauma and threats to wellbeing

F – family background and history

U – unique physical characteristics

L – location of residence and language differences

The ten factors of the RESPECTFUL model in more detail are as follows:

  • Religious-Spiritual Identity

Religion can have a significant impact on the way some way people interpret their life experiences. It can shape their values and choices. Others may identify with no religion at all. Multicultural counsellors consider both their own and their client’s religious backgrounds to ensure that their approach is appropriate for the person receiving counselling.

  • Economic-Class Background 

An individual’s socioeconomic background can influence their beliefs and attitude regarding their experiences. It may affect the resources a person currently has or those that are beyond their reach. In certain cultures, class and social standing influence a person’s recognition of their personal value – and will influence the way they will express problems during therapy or counselling. It is important for multicultural counsellors to keep these factors in mind.

  • Sexual Identity

This includes sexual orientation and gender identity. If a client has been shamed, oppressed, or criticised for their sexual identity, it may have a lasting impact on their personal development. A multicultural counsellor will not make assumptions about their patient’s experience but will consider how their identity plays a significant role in their life – especially for people who have been oppressed because of their sexuality, which can reduce a person’s sense of worth.

  • Psychological Maturity

Psychological maturity involves the ability of an individual to respond to a situation or their environment in an appropriate manner based upon their needs and psychological strengths. Psychological development is a long-term, gradual transition from simpler to more complex ways of thinking. Every person has different strengths and needs, so multicultural therapists should assess the psychological maturity of each of their clients to determine the best approach.

  • Ethnic-Cultural-Racial Identity

Race and ethnicity can have a profound impact on a person’s life, especially if they belong to a minority group. Multicultural therapists also recognise that there can be many differences between people in one racial or ethnic group. For example, some clients experience “within-group” differences which could also influence their psychological development.

  • Chronological Developmental Challenges 

Physical, cognition, and psychological skill-development affects how each individual experiences challenges at different points in life. A multicultural counselling therapist will recognise where their client is developmentally and what challenges they may currently be experiencing. 

  • Trauma and Other Threats to Wellbeing 

Trauma may not be a part of a person’s cultural background in the traditional sense, but it is something that can influence their thoughts, beliefs and actions. Unrelenting stressful situations can put individuals at risk for psychological issues when they are unable to cope with them. Likewise, a single highly stressful experience can take a toll on mental health. A multicultural counsellor may want to explore the ways trauma has affected their patients.

  • Family History and Dynamics

Family dynamics can influence an individual’s sense of belonging, ambition and sense of purpose, and can play a role in their sense of self-worth and prejudices. While today’s modern families embody far more diversification and less rigidity, the “traditional” family unit a patient may have grown up in may well have a bearing on their identity – or they may have grown up belonging to what is still considered to be an “alternative” type of family structure. 

  • Unique Physical Characteristics

All cultures have standards of what constitutes physical beauty. Having characteristics that fall outside of these standards can lead to severe stress. Multicultural counsellors should consider their own preconceptions about physical appearance and how this could influence the way they interact with their patients. People who possess unique physical characteristics may experience stress or deep-seated dissatisfaction. 

  • Location of Residence and Language Differences

A person’s geographical location can affect their interests, values, job and career, and even their personality traits. Not everyone from a particular area is the same, but a multicultural therapist can use their patients’ location as a frame of reference while getting to know them. Also, multicultural counsellors should stay alert for any unconscious bias they may have about different languages, dialects, or accents, steering clear of inaccurate assumptions.