Approaching Youth Mental Health Needs with Cultural Responsiveness

Youth populations are increasingly becoming more diverse, and minority students now comprise the largest demographic in U.S. schools. Young people from different cultural backgrounds have a wide range of experiences that contribute to their mental health, such as the subtle emotional traumas that children of color experience on a daily basis. By considering children’s unique experiences, mental health providers can approach youth mental health needs with cultural responsiveness.

In order to support the mental health needs of children from various demographics and cultural backgrounds, it’s critical to use an intersectional lens to understand the layers of each child’s identity––including their age, race, ethnicity, disabilities, family background, religious beliefs, gender identity, socioeconomic considerations, and more––while simultaneously considering historical factors, cultural biases, and systems that directly influence thinking and emotional wellbeing.

Taking all of these factors into account when supporting youth mental health needs allows for cultural responsiveness in the structuring of mental health supports and in selecting resources to promote wellbeing.


Here are 5 steps to approaching youth mental health needs with cultural responsiveness:

  1. Educate yourself.

Cultural responsiveness begins with education; it’s important to learn about a wide range of different backgrounds and experiences in order to best support children’s unique mental health needs. Acquire resources that give diverse perspectives that can help you better serve children’s needs. Not only can these resources aid your ability to take a culturally responsive approach, but many resources can act as a reference tool for children, their families, and educators to work together to support youth mental health needs.

  1. Ask children for their preferences.

To approach youth mental health needs with cultural responsiveness, it is critical to avoid making assumptions about any aspect of a child’s life. Ask children directly about their personal preferences and how they identify––including their gender identity, nationality, and racial identity––and take care to use their preferred labels when you address them. Not only do children feel heard and accepted when they are spoken to with the words they choose, but this practice also helps build trust between children and their mental healthcare providers, leading to more productive conversations and more effective treatment plans. 

  1. Consider cultural influence on coping mechanisms and emotional expression.

Children who have diverse backgrounds find their emotions and mental health affected by many cultural influences. Although it may differ from typical Western norms, it’s important to validate children’s unique understanding of emotion that has developed from the intersection of their different cultural backgrounds. It’s also crucial to help children create specific coping mechanisms that align with their cultural values, as these are the most likely to be effective in supporting youth mental health.

  1. Include every layer of a child’s unique, intersectional identity in your approach.

While it sometimes may seem like one particular facet of a child’s identity has a particularly strong effect on their mental health, it’s important to still include all of the intersectional pieces of a child’s experience when creating an approach to support their mental health needs. For example, a child may experience anxiety related to their race or gender identity, but that doesn’t diminish the mental health effects of other layers of their intersectional experience, such as their socioeconomic status or having a disability. Be sure not to generalize a child’s experience based on your assumptions or stereotypes, and always consider the complex factors that play into a child’s mental health needs.

  1. Challenge multicultural disparities in mental health.

There are many disparities when it comes to supporting the mental health needs of people from multicultural backgrounds. Between the barriers minority groups face when trying to access mental health services and the varied cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness, emotional expression, and mental health treatment, mental health supports are often not created with cultural responsiveness in mind. It’s critical to acknowledge these equity and opportunity gaps when supporting the mental health needs of diverse youth.

It’s important for every student to have access to equal and culturally sensitive mental health support. Greater representation of youth populations receiving mental health support can lead to lesser stigma, better identification of emerging mental health needs, and improved social-emotional skills in multicultural youth. By learning about the unique needs of culturally diverse students, mental health providers can approach youth mental health needs with cultural responsiveness and provide children with the support they need.

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