Community Voices: The Importance of Cultural Competency

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Community Voices: The Importance of Cultural Competency

By Amanda Lau, Project Coordinator for the California Youth Empowerment Network (CAYEN)

There are many factors that contribute to effectively providing the appropriate services to an individual in need, especially to those that are looking for mental health services. At the California Youth Empowerment Network (CAYEN), we believe that providing culturally competent services to individuals is one of these important factors, regardless of which culture a person comes from.

Mental illness can affect people from any ethnic background, gender identity, socio-economic class, religion, and age group. In order to provide relevant services to an individual, treatment must be culturally competent so that it is more easily and effectively administered. Having a provider that understands the unique beliefs, identities, and interests of their client can often be the difference between obtaining effective treatment and not benefiting from treatment at all.

Differences in Beliefs

Mental Illness in the Hmong Community

Different cultural communities often have varying views on mental illness and how best to treat it. Being sensitive to these unique views allows for providers to delivery culturally competent services and supports to their clients. The Hmong community is a great example. Originally hailing from the mountainous areas of China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, the Hmong people are known for their practice of shamanism. Their view of “mental health” is very different than the common Western view. They believe that the spirit or soul of a person is being affected by “mental illness”, not the brain itself. To them, the reason an individual experiences mental illness symptoms is because there is an evil or ancestral spirit causing these problems. Because traditionally the Hmong community does not believe in mental health–they do not even have a term for it–it’s incredibly difficult for anyone in the Hmong community to access relevant mental health services. The Center of Dignity, Recovery and Empowermentrecently hosted a webinar that delves deeper into the Hmong community and their beliefs. Today, many organizations and individuals are trying to create a bridge between the Hmong and Western cultures to provide effective services for those in need.

Differences in Identity

Mental Illness in the LGBTQ Community

Cultural competency doesn’t only apply to people’s ethnic backgrounds. Understanding a young person’s gender identity is also important to providing appropriate and effective services. For example in focus groups CAYEN conducted throughout California, we found that some LGBTQ youth find it difficult to connect with a provider that either doesn’t identify as LGTBQ or is not LGBTQ competent. Youth said it was difficult to relate to the provider and have the provider understand how to appropriately assist in their recovery. One of our Transition Aged Youth (TAY) Board members told us how it was difficult to find a culturally competent provider, despite living in the Bay Area and having insurance.

Differences in Interests

The Importance of Youth Friendly Services

Culturally competent services and supports should also take into consideration a client’s age and personal interests. The same services and supports that work for many adults are not necessarily the best treatment for young people. Thus mental health providers should provide youth-friendly alternatives to traditional mental health services.For example an organization in Oakland calledBeats, Rhymes, and Life strives to improve mental health and social outcomes by giving youth the opportunity to express themselves through hip hop dance and music, or what they’ve coined “hip hop therapy”. Many young people have found such therapies to be an extremely effective way of reducing stress and expressing themselves. These kinds of creative alternatives to treatment, which match the unique interests of young people, often mean the difference between successful and unsuccessful treatment.

Culturally competent mental health services are the most effective types of interventions, because they address the unique needs of individuals from all walks of life. Having a provider with the ability to provide culturally competent services is the most ideal situation for anyone dealing with mental illness. However, not every provider is equipped to provide culturally competent services for every unique community or individual. That’s why providers need to be aware of those who can provide these services so they can point their clients to other resources. By admitting that there is a provider who could better handle certain cases, providers would optimize their ability to help people while also saving consumer’s time. In order for a consumer to feel comfortable enough to share their deepest struggles, young people need to find common ground with their provider so that the healing process can begin, and the desired outcome is achieved.


Amanda Lau is the Project Coordinator of the California Youth Empowerment Network (CAYEN). Amanda identifies as a transition age youth (TAY) and is working to promote mental wellness through social media, marketing and advocacy with CAYEN. CAYEN strives to give youth a voice, especially in policies that affect their lives. CAYEN organizes a statewide TAY Board that provides a perspective of what youth need in their communities. CAYEN in turn gives these youth opportunities to voice their opinions on a state level. The California Youth Empowerment Network ultimately strives to make sure youth are not forgotten and that their voices are being heard.

By |2019-04-24T13:52:52-08:00July 9th, 2014|Community Voices, Featured Posts|0 Comments

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