The impact of mental health service providers’ multicultural counselling competencies

While many newcomers face culture shock, discrimination, and difficulty adjusting to their new environment, adolescent newcomers may take on these concerns in addition to their own developmental difficulties. While navigating a new culture, these youth may struggle to transition academically, socially, and personally, impacting their ability to thrive in their new home.

While these youth may experience higher rates of mental health concerns, this groups also tends to underutilize mental health services. This may be due to their counsellors’ lack of cultural competence. Multicultural counselling competencies (MCC) include the awareness, knowledge, and skills to work effectively across and within cultures. When a counselor’s lack of MCC disrupts the relationship with the client, they may terminate their counselling prematurely.

Dr. Anusha Kassan, Werklund doctoral student Amy Rose-Green, and Werklund graduate Jasmine Nathoo (University of Alberta) investigated the experiences of 20 newcomer youth who attended counselling after migrating to Canada. The team were interested in how these clients perceived their counsellor’s self-awareness, knowledge, skills, and relationship-building abilities as part of their overall MCCs.


A majority of the participants said they appreciated their counsellors’ recognition of the cultural and other differences between them, and their efforts to bridge these gaps. The clients felt they trusted the counsellors more when they were explicitly aware of their own biases, and were able to set them aside, in order to better support them.

On the other hand, counsellors who lacked self-awareness might be surprised by the cultural differences between them and their client, and express assumptions and stereotypes in session. These exchanges might lead to misunderstanding, or feeling that their counsellor was biased, insensitive, or judgmental. These could be particularly detrimental to the counsellor-client connection.


In addition to understanding the client’s specific concerns, culture-specific knowledge – such as knowledge of immigration experiences, personal and cultural identities, and cultural differences – was valued by the clients.

While some participants felt it was challenging to explain everything to their counselor, given their different past experiences, many appreciated that their counselor attempted to learn more about their culture. This cultural mismatch could be therefore become a positive influence, depending on the skills of the counsellor.

Some clients noted that knowledge gaps could still occur even when the counsellor shared the same background. While some found that cultural similarities helped them feel better understood, others felt this could also lead to indifference or a sense of being judged by their counsellor.


As in any counselling relationship, the participants noted the importance of open body language, presence, and attentiveness from their counsellor. Some clients also appreciated when their counsellors would appropriately self-disclose some personal stories, making them seem more approachable and human.

Many participants felt that their counsellors did not have much experience with multicultural clients, seeing some culturally appropriate behaviour as dysfunctional. For some, engaging in meaningful discussions of cultural norms and expectations was helpful, while others questioned the relevance of discussing culture, especially if it was seemingly unrelated to the topic of the session. The participants suggested that asking whether they wished to discuss their culture would be a necessary step.

Engaging Newcomer Youth

Regardless of whether the participants had positive or negative experiences, they highlighted the importance of their counsellors’ multicultural competencies in fostering their counselling relationship.

Given the differing opinions of cultural matching, helping all counsellors to consider the multiple and intersecting identities of newcomer youth is key. Ensuring that counsellors receive training in MCC, and that they are able to provide culturally sensitive practice for these youth, can help engage and retain newcomer youth in counselling during this importance developmental stage.

See more from Dr. Anusha Kassan on her profile

Connected Citations

Kassan, A., Rose-Green, A., & Nathoo, J. (2017). Multicultural counselling competencies with newcomer youth: A phenomenological study of client experiences. Journal of Counseling, 27, 221-241.