Ethical Issues in Multicultural Counseling

Ethical Issues in Multicultural Counseling

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Counselors are often faced with situations that require ethical decision making abilities. The use of ethical principle of American Counseling Association is mandated for all counselors. Counselors are expected to have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures. Counselors are expected to manage cultural barriers that may arise during counseling session. The paper explores ethical issues that may arise in multicultural counseling with details explaining the primary responsibility of the counselor, functions of the client, confidentiality and relationship boundary issues. A counselor’s cultural and religious values should never interfere with the counseling process. The paper will also explain how to resolve ethical issues and why it is important for the counselors to practice in an ethical manner. Such an understanding will necessitate having the ability of counseling individuals of different cultures, disabilities and behaviors without having any basis which may cause ethical issues.

Keywords: multicultural, counseling, confidentiality, ethical, boundary

Ethics refers to moral choices and decisions that define acceptable and prohibited behavior in the society. Ethical codes are regulations or instructions that define good or bad behavior and or set limits to acceptable standards. Ethics in counseling refers to the behavior of the counselor in interaction with clients. Professional counselors maintain a straight and helpful relationship with clients without bias based on personal feelings or culture. Multicultural counseling refers to the application of cultural dimensions in the therapeutic relationship. Competent Multicultural counselors must understand and interact effectively with diverse cultures without bias. Culture refers to the identity of a person. Aspects of culture include religion, race, color, ethnicity, sex, gender, traditions and unique characteristics such as disabilities. Ethical issues in multicultural counseling include cultural discrimination, cultural bias, stereotypes, patient privacy and extent of the client to therapist relationship.

The psychologist must recognize that their cultures, attitudes and beliefs can be detrimental to the patient who hold different cultural values and beliefs (American Psychological Association). Competent Multicultural Psychologists recognize the value of cultural sensitivity and responsiveness and its cultural limitations to most clients. Competent counselors can bridge the gap between therapy and culture and offer assistance to the client (American Psychological Association).

Cultural Discrimination and Bias

Ahmed (2011) highlights that race, color, and ethnicity are the most critical aspects of culture affecting counseling. Multicultural counselors have to understand the impact and limitations of culture in therapy (Ahmed, 2011). Cultural discrimination and bias refer to the difference in beliefs between the patient and the therapist. Ethics requires that therapists put aside personal culture and subsequent beliefs and values in multicultural counseling (strong, 2011). Cultural exchange and interaction have created homogenous society and leading to a new generation of cross-cultural families and children. Counselors must be cultural competent as the society becomes more heterogeneous. Meghan and Claire (2015) defines counseling insensitive to culture as harmful therapy. According to Meghan and Claire, it is unethical for therapists to downplay the potential negatively of culture in counseling (Meghan and Claire, 2015). Counseling ethics dictates that counselors understand, respect and appreciate the culture and background of the patient. Ethics also require the counselor to avoid personal culture and values bias in dealing with multicultural counseling.

Race and Ethnic Diversity and Discrimination

Ethical practice is a major issue in multicultural counseling due to social tension based on culture particular race and origin. Lack of cultural sensitivity amounts to cultural discrimination in counseling and damages the relationship. Chao (2012) highlights that race or ethnicity, religion and sexuality as three primary ethical issues in multicultural counseling.

Race or ethnicity defines the cultural identity of a person and also beliefs, values, and morals. (Bradley, 2015) Identifies that in the family setting the race, ethnicity or color of the family defines its values, beliefs, morals, and even social interactions. The impact of race and ethnicity is greater than perceived and affects therapists and patient’s behavior (Chao, 2012). Chao separates race and ethnicity noting that both have similar challenges on multicultural counseling’s (Chao, 2012). Example, Whites, and Blacks ethnic diversity relates to color and historical injustices such as slavery. African Americans patients and therapists must face the issues of racial discrimination (Chao, 2012). Whites, on the other hand, are accused of racial and color discrimination a factor that affects their relationship with blacks. The tension between the two cultural groups becomes harmful when therapists in either hand can not overcome personal culture when dealing with a multicultural client. Example, White therapists who racially discriminates against black Africans are incapable of offering psychological assistance. Black therapists may view white clients as arrogant or old a historical grudge thus failing to assist the client. Race and ethnic tensions are, therefore, major ethical issues affecting multicultural counseling.

Colorblind racial attitudes or the failure to identify and acknowledge cultural diversity constitutes societal racism. Color blindness is a negative aspect of multicultural counseling and affects the outcome of therapy (Kim, 2010). Sue (2010) argues that school counselors require more training as the school and society become more cultural diverse. Example, Immigrants students find it difficult to connect and share with school counselors lacking multicultural knowledge (Sue, 2010). Kim (2010) notes that white counselors have a difficult time connecting with black patients due to the racial tension between the two groups. Black patients prefer talking to a black therapists rather than a white counselor. Whites and black ethnic groups differ in economic and social wellbeing with blacks recording double poverty, incarceration rates and lack of access to education (Wendt, 2015). White therapists are associated with discrimination by black patients and must be cultural competent to identify the cultural barriers. (Wendt, 2015) Notes that race and ethnicity are the biggest challenge facing multicultural counseling.

Bradley (2012) highlights that family counselors have a wider role to play in ensuring ethical practice in psychology. Family counselors handle family challenges include children behavior challenges, struggle with identity and also matrimonial conflicts. Ethical challenges when the counselor is dealing with a cultural diverse family and fails to realize values and beliefs. Bradley (2012) refers to the lack of cultural sensitivity when dealing with families as unethical. Example, American families are liberal with children and cultures allowing freedom and personal decisions on matters such as religion, dressing and sexuality. Muslim families are stricter with children upbringing mainly on matters such as religion. Competent counselors must understand and respect the values and beliefs held by families.

Religious Discrimination and Insensitivity

Religion shapes people’s morals, beliefs, social interactions and values making it a key cultural factor and challenge in multicultural counseling. Religion is an ethical issue affecting both therapists and clients (Bowles, 2013). Bowles (2013) notes that the effect of religion is powerful in patients who have mastered the beliefs through the social structures. Nickels (2011) states that ignorance to religious diversity and spiritual orientation of the patient leads to decreased understanding of the patient’s psychology. Values and beliefs religion affects the way people think, behave, respond and also interpret information (Nickels, 2011). Sensitivity also stresses on values stressed from childhood including biases, fears, prejudices, morals, taboos and beliefs (Nickles, 2011). The patient holds the values from childhood and acts as foundations for their lives and decisions. Counselor’s failure to recognize patient’s spirituality and religion leads to the unconscious and forceful application of the counselor’s values over the patients (Nickle, 2011). The patients, in this case, feel misunderstood and underestimates the therapist’s ability to help in finding a solution. Nickle (2011) concludes that religious insensitivity results to religious bias and intimidation of the patient.

Religion and spirituality also act as a barrier seeking psychological help. Religious groups such as Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists hold different values and beliefs. Islam is more conservative compared to Christianity, and members of the two groups hold similar and also divergent views on several social issues. Marilyn (2014) states that unethical multicultural practices such as religious insensitivity are highly visible in group therapy. Heterogeneous groups come from different religious backgrounds, and it is possible for dominant religions such as Christianity to intimidate members from minor religions. Group leaders must demonstrate competency skills such as group control and offer equal chances to all religions. Marilyn (2014) also notes that in groups members must respect spirituality diversity and abstain from adopting a colorblind ideology. Example, Muslims are faced with stereotypes such as terrorism and violence and also comprise minority group in the United States. The therapist must ensure that personal beliefs and values do no accommodate religious intolerance and isolation in the group.

Sexual Discrimination and Insensitivity

Counselors must be sensitive to sexual orientations and also avoid personal, social and religious biases when dealing with LGBT. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender face the toughest experiences in schools and the community due to their sexual orientations (Watson, 2012). Religious and social morals and value dictate that sexual orientation that deviate from male and female relationships are evil. Social beliefs and codes also dictate a sexual relationship as strictly a man and woman and victimize any deviations. Watson (2012) notes that due to social and religious values and beliefs LGBT in school suffer discrimination from students and professional stuff. Watson notes that being gay is regarded as a mental disorder, and such individuals are mocked openly (Watson, 2012).

Sue (2013) highlights the LGBT as a vulnerable and fragile group in need of special attention particularly from professionals such as counselors. Due to the social stigmatization and isolation the LGBT tend to be secretive and suffer psychologically without seeking professional help (Sue, 2013). Sexual insensitivity and ignorance by school counselors further pushes such students to isolation and potential psychological problems. Sue (2013) stresses that competent cultural counselors must avoid social and religious bias in dealing with LGBT. The counselor must also offer the individuals help without discrimination or attempts to change their preference. Sue (2013) notes that the role of a counselor is primary assistance rather than judgments based on personal rather than professional opinions.

Therapeutic Relationship Limits and Patient Data Privacy

The relationship between the therapist and the client must be solely focused on psychological help and the psychologist must earn the mutual trust of the patients. In any counseling scenario, it is unethical for the psychologist to develop a sexual or intimate relationship with the patient (Buhari, 2013). Buhari (2013) notes that patients are vulnerable to psychologists as they trust them with their most intimidate details. Therapists must learn to maintain boundaries in the relationship and also communicate the boundaries to the patient (Buhari, 2013). Counseling relationships are based on trust and emotional connection between the therapist and the client who shares personal feelings and secrets (Buhari, 2013). The feelings may evoke emotional contact, and it is the responsibility of the therapist to prevent inappropriate behavior. Buhari (2013) notes that development of an unprofessional relationship between the patient and therapist damages the effectiveness of the therapy.

Psychologist’s code of conduct requires that the counselor ensures confidentiality of patient’s data. The relationship between the therapist and the client is based on trust (Buhari, 2013). Psychologists have an obligation to protect the information divulged by the client from any form of leakage or sharing to maintain the trust (American Psychological Association). The psychologist can only diverge the information under a court order or when the patient is in potential danger.


In conclusion, ethics refers to codes or regulations that govern acceptable and unacceptable behavior in counseling. Multicultural counseling requires the counselor to be culturally competent and sensitive. Cultural sensitivity refers to understanding of patient’s beliefs, values, and morals. Competent Multicultural therapists understand and respect cultural diversity and prevent personal, cultural bias. The most relevant ethical issues in multicultural counseling include race and ethnic discrimination, religious discrimination, sexuality discrimination, boundaries to the therapeutic relationship and confidentiality of patient data. Competent cultural counselors must be sensitive to all cultural aspects such as religion, race, gender, ethnicity and color. Competent counselors must prevent personal, cultural biases and feelings from interfering with the therapeutic relationship.


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