The Impact of History and Counseling Theories on Culturally Diverse Populations

Written by Jackie ONeal

In counseling clients from diverse cultural groups, there are several factors to bear in mind for the counselor. Since most American counselors are trained in the Western approach, clients of diverse groups may find some to the approaches and interventions to be ineffective in treating their particular concerns. Counselors will need to stay abreast of the relevant research that pertains to multicultural counseling to be effective, as well as gain an understanding of the history of oppression in the United States that has impacted their clients.

Theories of Counseling: Instruments of Oppression or Benefit?

Sue & Sue (2013) explained most therapists are trained according to the Western approach, and as such lack the expertise to work with culturally diverse clients. The monocultural, ethnocentric approach has proven to be ineffective with non-White clients. In addition, Erford (2014) asserted the Western model of psychotherapy in terms of counseling theories can often be inappropriate with clients of diverse cultures, primarily as they are based on the belief system and values of the White dominant society. The researcher clarified often times, the counselor may use interventions related to a counseling theory that may conflict with the client’s worldview.

For example, a counselor who lacks cultural competence may suggest a Gestalt empty chair exercise to a female, Asian client and recommend she imagine her father sitting in the chair, and that she may tell him what is on her mind. Since respect for elders is important in Asian cultures, it is unlikely the client will feel comfortable disclosing her feelings to her father. She may decide to terminate counseling. As a result she would be harmed as her issues would not be addressed. Further, Erford (2014) points out Western values that focus on areas such as “individualism, action oriented approaches to problem solving, work ethic, scientificmethods, and rigid emphasis on time schedules,” which are inherent in many counseling theories will not work when the client’s values stand in conflict, hence Western counseling theories can be oppressive in nature, and have tended to oppress diverse cultural groups. For example, Erford (2014) observed the notion of abnormality in American culture may translate as normal in other cultures. Sue & Sue (2013) noted as a result of the knowledge base of psychology having its origins in “Euro-American or Western culture” (p. 121), many practitioners in the mental health field lack the training to work effectively with marginalized groups. The researchers explained this accounts for why the field of psychology has been accused of being “ ethnocentric, monocultural, and inherently biased against racial/ethnic minorities… and other culturally diverse groups.” (p. 121.) In order for clients to benefit, they would require a culturally competent counselor with experience working with cultural groups different from their own. Sue& Sue (2013) advises therapists to be aware of their own biases when attempting to counsel the culturally diverse, and gain an understanding of how it is paramount to gain trust from the client, although the clients will continually test the level of trust. Psychotherapy can benefit the culturally diverse and many counseling theories are described as being effective cross-culturally, yet it requires a culturally competent counselor who can be sensitive to the concerns and needs of the culturally diverse, has an understanding of the history of oppression in the United States, and a keen knowledge of the cultures of the population they chose to serve. For example, in counseling clients of mixed race, Sue & Sue (2013) asserted, therapists need to be aware of their experiences as mixed race persons. The researchers explain further, “Our society is one that tends to force people to choose one racial identity over another, or imposes a singular racial identity upon them.” (p. 426.). In treating mixed race persons, knowledge of the pressures they face and the stressors they experience make a difference in being an effective counselor.

Cultural History: A Key to Knowing the Client

Having an understanding of historical events that have impacted clients can also be helpful in the questioning process. Hays (2008) noted, “the greater a therapist’s knowledge of historical events that are significant in the client’s culture, the more relevant his or her questions will be.” (p. 110). In terms of gathering information for mental health assessments, Hays (2008) pointed out, the client’s personal history is organized to include several elements such as “education, family upbringing, significant relationships, work history, psychiatric or psychological treatment.” (p. 110). Hays (2008) explained what is often missing is the client’s cultural history. The researcher pointed out when a therapist has a grasp of the historical timeline in which the client lived, and the major events that happened or were happening, it can be monumentally helpful in gaining insight about the client. Rogler (2002) emphasized important clinical implications could arise from the field of psychology by focusing on human behavior explored in a historical context. The researcher noted psychological issues related to, for example, the Great Depression and World War II generation needed to be examined more extensively in therapy, as it would change the nature of the questioning process therapists would engage in with clients, and would result in gathering deeper insight.

The IQ Debate

Suzuki & Valencia ( 1997) (as cited in Hays, 2008) observed in terms of IQ tests, “ the misguided equation of IQ with intelligence led to misclassification of many African-American, Latino, and Native American children as mentally retarded or learning disabled.” (p. 133.). The researchers asserted with regard to intelligence testing since the 1920’s, the topic area of racial and ethnic differences in intellectual performance has been an issue of debate. The researchers noted, “ the examination of overall IQ scores provides only partial understanding of racial/ethnic differences in IQ” (p. 1104) and this fact stands in the way od deciphering any “group differences in intelligence,” (p. 1104). Hays (2008) explained today the emphasis is to make a departure from, “classification and rating to an approach that emphasizes understanding and guidance.” (p. 133.). The researcher noted this approach is simpler as it can determine if tasks can or cannot be performed by individuals being evaluated. The approach also includes taking into account the testtaker’s “ cultural influences on a person’s test performance and functioning.” (p. 134).

In light of this more innovative approach, minority groups such as Latinos can benefit. For example, Hays (2008) clarified the emphasis placed on several areas of test performance valued by European Americans such as “cognitive quickness” (p. 134) stands in stark contrast to other cultures (such as Latinos). The researcher observed Latino culture (and other cultures) focus on and value, “ careful thought, cautious behavior, and cooperation with others values that may negatively affect their test performance…functioning in their own environment.” (p. 134.). Hays (2008) explained in the past, these assessments like the IQ test had been used for the purpose of the exclusion of minority groups from educational systems and this contributed to the oppression of minority groups. The researcher asserted the testing instruments should continue to be evaluated for validity “of intellectual assessment across diverse cultures.” (p. 134) by the research community.

Sue & Sue (2013) explained that the history of the United States illustrates the history of oppression well. As such, Western approaches to counseling used by American counselors are lacking in addressing the concerns of the culturally diverse. As a result, many individuals who are non-White in the United States are harmed, and terminate counseling. It appears to be another form of exclusion and oppression similar to intelligence testing which began in 1920’s and attempted to demonstrate ethnic/ racial differences in levels of intelligence as a way to exclude minorities from educational systems. Recently, multicultural counseling has come to light as a force that may start to heal many of the neglected culturally diverse individuals who in earlier decades did not seem to count. As more and more counselors set out to become culturally competent and comply with the ACA Code of Ethics 2014, the future may produce a world where persons of all races, ethnicities, and cultures will be served by the mental health field, and where their issues will be addressed in a competent manner.


Erford, B.T.(2014) Orientation to the counseling profession: Advocacy, ethics, and essential professional foundations(2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Inc.

Hays, P. A. (2008). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rogler, L. H. (2002). Historical generations and psychology: The case of the Great Depression and World War II. American Psychologist, 57(12), 1013-1023. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.12.1013

Sue, D.W., & Sue D. (2013). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (6th ed.).[VitalSource Bookshelf]  Retrieved from:
Suzuki, L. A., & Valencia, R. R. (1997). Race-ethnicity and measured intelligence. American Psychologist, 52(10), 1103.


This article originally appeared on the Ground Report @ and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. It was originally written by Jackie ONeal.


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