People seated around a conference table

The culture of counseling

Education school prepares future counselors to address diverse clients

December 12, 2018

Deeply exploring counseling clients’ worldviews, cultural identities, privilege and oppression plays a key role in helping them heal.

“We’re all about empowering diverse clients.”

– Farah Ibrahim

Every day, culturally diverse counseling clients walk into clinics, schools and private practices throughout the world to share their deepest concerns, hopes and dreams. Each person brings a unique sense of self that is complex and multifaceted.

Farah Ibrahim, PhD, professor of counseling in the School of Education & Human Development (SEHD), has given hundreds of seminars and research presentations on negotiating cultural differences. She works with a team of counseling faculty who have a deep commitment to teaching the new generation of counselors about multicultural counseling, social justice advocacy and the intersectionality of client identities.

“We’re all about empowering diverse clients,” Ibrahim said.

Understanding the vulnerability that comes with diversity

Clients may be trying to build a better self-image or navigate the disparate demands of work and society. They may be dealing with serious depression, drug addiction, suicidal thoughts, culture shock, racism or sexism.

No matter what they need, counseling is a critical step to making things better.

Clients from diverse backgrounds – many of whom have historically not been adequately served by the profession – can feel especially vulnerable as they step through the door. They hope that the counselor who is listening to them is able to understand their concerns, accept and empower them.

Ibrahim co-authored the new book “Intentional Group Counseling: Best Practices for a Multicultural World” (Ibrahim, Ivey, Pedersen, & Ivey, 2017). Her work focuses on preparing future counselors to work effectively with clients from several cultural contexts.

Her deep understanding of how immigration and diversity impact mental health stems from her childhood in the rough part of Pakistan known as Sarhad, or North-West Frontier Province. In this area, it was quite normal to see men walking down the street with rifles on their shoulders and bullets strapped across their chests.

She has lived, taught and counseled in several cultural contexts, including England, Pakistan and the United States.

Woman with short hair smiling
A student learns about multicultural counseling at CU Denver.

What was going on in counseling training

Most of the counseling texts and research Ibrahim studied as a student were written by white men. As she progressed through her counseling training and clinical experiences, she started to wonder what was going on.

The models she had been taught in graduate schools weren’t working for women or for her diverse clients. She realized that different counseling models work for different people and that the counselor’s ability to better understand culturally diverse clients’ worldviews was key to their healing and progress in therapy.

To help solve these issues, Ibrahim developed and published several important resources for counselors around the globe, including “Scale to Assess World View” (1984), “Cultural Identity Check List” (1990, 2008), “The U.S. Acculturation Index” (2007), “Cultural Competence and Responsiveness Survey for Educators” (2005), and “Privilege/Oppression Inventory” (2017).

“We look at the individual not just by gender, or by just sexual orientation, or just by race or culture, but holistically,” she said of hers and her SEHD colleagues’ work. “Counselors have to understand the intersectionality of an identity to see how much power a person may have, or believes he/she/ze has, based on gender, sexual orientation, social class, education level, etc.”

“It is important to focus on intersectionality, because people are treated differently based on what characteristics are valued by a society. And if you don’t have any power, and don’t feel you have power, you really cannot live your life fully or achieve your goals.”

“To me now, worldview (beliefs, values and assumptions) is the core of a person,” said Ibrahim. “This is acquired in a social-cultural environment: how they were brought up, how they were socialized, what religion were they socialized in, how educated their parents were, how educated they are, and ability and disability issues. Looking at all these variables gives me an image of the intersectionality of identity, which helps in figuring out how powerful this person feels in a given society.”

And, while mental health professionals who are recently trained and licensed by accredited universities generally receive some multicultural counseling training, Ibrahim is concerned about counselors who received their training many years ago and who have not kept up with newer counseling methods for our diverse society.

“Diverse individuals have opened up to me,” she said. “There are some bad counselors out there. And, even people who think they have had multicultural training struggle when working with culturally different clients. This can be detrimental to diverse clients. There’s a lot of unfinished business in people’s lives that never gets closure because they don’t know where to go and who they can trust. After a bad experience, many clients will not seek help; this can be dangerous.”

Preparing students to serve all clients

Ibrahim encourages all of her current counseling students to get out into the world and volunteer in order to understand their prospective multicultural clients.

Farah Ibrahim, PhD, professor of counseling
Farah Ibrahim, PhD, has given hundreds of seminars and research presentations on negotiating cultural differences.

“I think that this is also part of the social justice venture that we are into,” said Ibrahim. “I am really encouraging them to volunteer, to go out to schools, community mental health centers and other community agencies where you have people that need services. They require social skills, or just need support. The student volunteers offer healthy coping mechanisms and also validate their feelings and what they’re going through, and teach them how to cope effectively.

“What I say to our students is that clients come in with a primary issue (or the presenting problem), which is the issue that they want to work on. My secondary goal is to always empower them within their own identities. For example, if it’s the gender part that is weakening them, then I try to empower them there. I try to find what’s right with their gender, how they stood up for themselves and what they did to reinforce their power as a gendered being.”

Ultimately, Ibrahim said, helping her students succeed in the profession is at the core of everything she does.

“My students last semester completed an advanced multicultural course where they had to do a social justice project. They chose to complete the project at a high school in Aurora where more than 100 languages are spoken. The counseling students went there and asked the teachers and students what they would like to work on (a needs assessment). Then they developed a counseling intervention and conducted it. They did a superb job. And, the school wants them to come back next year to foster skills, build empathy and create positive bonds among students.”

Guest contributor: Julia Cummings, School of Education & Human Development