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Want to treat multicultural clients? First, study yourself

An accepting attitude is key to treating clients from a variety of backgrounds, according to a 2012 study in Training and Education in Professional Psychology.

The study suggests that self-reflection and immersion in diverse cultures are key for attaining multicultural competence, says Amy L. Reynolds, PhD, a counseling psychology professor at the University at Buffalo and the study's lead researcher.

Psychologists' unintentional assumptions and biases are some of the things "that contribute to the high drop-out rate among people of color, who are already underrepresented as clients," Reynolds says.

The team surveyed 129 psychology students from two Northeastern universities. Most participants were white women, and 80 percent reported that multicultural coursework was a degree requirement. The students filled out six tests, including personality assessments and a survey of their attitudes toward diversity and equality. The students also completed the Multicultural Counseling Knowledge and Awareness Scale, a 32-item quiz in which students rate themselves on such statements as "I believe all clients should maintain direct eye contact during counseling" and "I am aware that some minorities believe counselors lead minority students into nonacademic programs regardless of student potential, preferences or ambitions."

Of the six instruments used, the Quick Discrimination Index best predicted cultural competence. This 30-item test aims to quantify how people relate to diverse populations by asking them how much they endorse statements such as "My friendship network is racially mixed."

These results have led Reynolds and others to call for a more holistic approach to diversity training, including more interaction with diverse populations and a stronger emphasis on self-reflection. Reynolds, for example, requires her students to immerse themselves in two multicultural situations where they are the "other," such as religious services or sexual-orientation-specific events. The requirement is that students report on the experience; the hope is that students will remember the experience when treating their future clients, she says.

A more diverse faculty and student body also helps change attitudes and promotes cultural competence, she says. "Unless we involve the whole person, we won't understand how other people make meaning of ... their emotional experiences," she says.

—Allison Batdorff

Digital Extra

See how you score on the Quick Discrimination Index.