How to find a culturally sensitive therapist as an Indian American person

For Indian American people seeking mental health care, finding a provider who understands their lived experiences can make the experience of therapy less daunting and improve outcomes. For people straddling two identities, it’s not uncommon to struggle with diverging cultural expectations and identity formation.

Studies suggest that South Asian immigrants experience high rates of mental health conditions and are less likely than other identity-based groups to access care. A series of interviews with recent South Asian migrant families in New York City found that acculturation stress impacts multiple generations, including foreign-born parents and individuals who emigrated as children and adolescents (also referred to as 1.5 generational children).

Culturally-linked stigma and religious beliefs are two common reasons for which South Asian individuals choose not to seek mental health care, as is cultural sensitivity. A 2000 UK-based study about attitudes toward mental health care among British Asian, Western European, and Pakistani individuals found that a lack of cultural and religious understanding was the primary reason for Pakistani individuals’ resistance to mental health care.

Ensuring that a therapist is culturally sensitive, defined by the APA as an “awareness and appreciation of the values, norms, and beliefs characteristic of a cultural, ethnic, racial, or other group that is not one’s own, accompanied by a willingness to adapt one’s behavior accordingly,” can make the experience of therapy less daunting and more effective for Indian American individuals. A therapist does not need to share a client’s identity in order to be culturally sensitive, but a client may prefer to work with a provider whose lived experiences align with theirs.

Alma member Sweta Venkataramanan, PsyD, addressed experiences unique to Indian American individuals and offered recommendations for finding a therapist equipped to support them.

Q: What mental health challenges are important to highlight for Indian American clients?

A: A lot of times when thinking about families with parents that immigrated to America, there are a lot of assumptions about what it means to live at home past college, the types of food you may eat, or expectations around how much you can socialize with the opposite gender. This can make it difficult to solidify your own identity or learn to set appropriate boundaries with parents as well as others. This can have an impact on attachment styles that might affect future relationships as well. When you’ve grown up engaging in possible people-pleasing behaviors due to cultural norms around respecting elders, it can be a challenge to advocate for yourself. 

Q: What questions can an Indian American person ask during a consultation call to gauge a provider’s cultural sensitivity?

A: Understanding what you want guidance and support with will help you find a therapist that can help you. A culturally competent therapist has the knowledge, awareness, and skills to address a variety of topics while recognizing the values, beliefs, and perspectives you have as a client. Cultural competence isn’t just about your race or ethnicity. Ask therapists how familiar they are with your culture or background. Are they comfortable talking about the intersection of your culture with your social class, gender, religion, and/or sexuality? Ask about their training and education in working with diverse populations. Ask them who their typical client is and what they treat and focus on in sessions to get an idea if it’s a good fit for you. 

Questions Indian-American clients can ask to gauge a therapist’s cultural sensitivity

  • How do you see a client’s cultural background factoring into the therapeutic relationship?
  • How familiar are you with traditions in my culture? This can reduce the need to explain norms around engagements, holidays, and other nuances in Hindu or Muslim culture.
  • Do you speak any languages other than English? Some clients may find it easier to describe experiences or feelings in the language they speak at home, such as Hindi, Tamil, or Urdu.
  • Can you share your experience working with Indian Americans and mental health-related challenges around work-life balance, family and relationships, and setting boundaries?
  • Can you share an example of a time you incorporated cultural sensitivity into a therapy session?
  • How familiar are you with generational differences that come from being the child of immigrants?
  • When engaging with a person whose culture is different from your own, how do you ensure that you’re communicating effectively?
A headshot of Dr. Sweta Venkataramanan against a beige background. She wears a pale purple short-sleeved blouse.

Featuring: Sweta Venkataramanan, PsyD

Dr. Sweta Venkataramanan is committed to helping you learn about your best self by providing a safe, supportive, and culturally sensitive therapeutic experience. She can help you address current or long-standing difficulties, facilitate healthier relationships, manage work-life balances, alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, and become resilient and adaptable to change.

Published on February 18, 2022.