Psychology is predominantly taught from a Western perspective. However, when helping our students to become clinic-ready psychologists in our multicultural society, it’s become clear that students need cross-cultural graduate attributes.

Dr Kelly Prandl, clinical psychologist and associate at Curtin University, has the rewarding job of imparting cross-cultural understanding upon her psychology students. To help her students develop the right mindset, she presents the argument that Cross Cultural Psychology should simply be Psychology. Perhaps it’s Western Psychology that should be the subset.

Dr Prandl stresses, “It is so important that Cross Cultural Psychology is integrated throughout our teaching and our texts. Not as something different, but as a mainstream way of thinking about humans.”

“It is so important that Cross Cultural Psychology is integrated throughout our teaching and our texts. Not as something different, but as a mainstream way of thinking about humans.”

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that Cross Cultural Psychology is taught as a subset of Psychology. Given our cultural diversity and the interwoven nature of cultural heritage in modern society, should it be the subset or the substantive?

Psychology from the Western lens

When we look historically at the science of psychology, all the research and therapies come from a Western understanding of the world and is based on the Western population. In fact, it’s coined the WEIRD population – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Basing clinical psychology on this lens has caused a great deal of damage to people of other cultural backgrounds, including the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Historically, Western psychology assessments were imposed on Aboriginal people, which then was used for the basis of derogatory claims that impinged their quality of life and access to care.

Dr Prandl gained first-hand experience of potential misunderstandings in the cultural context when working as a midwife in the Aboriginal community. She remembers working with pregnant Indigenous women, and observed what she thought was depression.

Using a DSM-IV statistical diagnosis – a Western diagnostic tool – these women would’ve met the criteria for depression. But in fact, they were not depressed. They were stressed. It looked similar on paper, but within their cultural context it was something different.

If health workers hadn’t had the cross-cultural competencies to identify this, these women could’ve been mis-prescribed anti-depressants under a typical Western treatment plan. Anti-depressants would not have changed the experiences of systemic racism that the women reported, nor the lack of appropriate housing.

Dr Prandl reflects, “our students need to be taught to treat every patient as an absolute individual, and not make any assumptions that could lead to misdiagnosis simply because of a mono-cultural view.”

Cultural diversity calls for culturally competent psychologists

We seek to develop our students into well-rounded well-equipped clinical psychologists. Inadequate cross-cultural understanding impacts in many ways:

  • Graduates will find it hard to form suitable relationships with patients. Not being able to connect with a patient is a serious barrier to helping them.
  • Minority populations may not access a service at all if they can’t find culturally safe care. The power of word-of-mouth cannot be underestimated within cultural communities.
  • Misdiagnosis can occur, inappropriate therapeutic techniques might be used, and inaccurate information may be collected from the patient.
  • A patient’s true needs may be completely missed – sometimes leading to more harm done than good.

Helping students learn with a cultural viewpoint

When students explore Cross Cultural Psychology, it widens their lens. Students can use these skills to question their clinical approach. They learn to ask themselves pertinent questions: Does this therapy style fit everyone? Is what we’re studying relevant to all people in all cultures? If not, what might be different?

A fitting example is Dr Prandl’s lectures on Developmental Psychology from prenatal through to adolescence. She explains, “It’s always interesting when we examine parenting and attachment styles. We teach the traditional theory, but then we remind students that the research was done in the UK.

Parenting and attachment are so culturally bound. Just because a child and parent behave in a particular way does not mean we need to intervene. It may be quite normal within their cultural context.”

The benefits of integrating cultural understanding are immense:

  • It fosters a next-generation workforce of clinical psychologists who are sensitive to the individual needs of patients, without assumptions.
  • Our graduates will learn to work in partnership with their patients, to find the best outcomes for them.
  • Cultural communities are more likely to seek help and trust their psychologist.