Headshot of Natoya Hill Haskins

Q&A: Culturally Competent Counseling and the Black Church

This Black History Month, counseling education professor Natoya Haskins discusses her research on how the history of spirituality in Black communities can inform effective counseling practices.

Laura Hoxworth

Throughout her 20-year career in counseling and counselor education, Natoya Hill Haskins has been committed to equity and inclusion.  

Haskins, an associate professor and co-director of the counselor education program at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, also has a passion for working with communities of faith. In addition to her counseling work, she attended seminary and served as an associate minister at a predominantly African American church, working primarily with youth.  

These two identities have converged in an interest in supporting Black spiritual communities. In one recent publication, Haskins proposes integrating Black liberation theology, a theoretical approach that originated in religious spaces, into counseling and counselor education programs.

In honor of Black History Month, we spoke with Haskins about her research and how better understanding of religion and spirituality in Black communities can help counselors become more culturally competent.


Q: Tell me a little bit about the history of oppression in the Black church and how it relates to mental health today.

I think about my ancestors who were enslaved or living during the Jim Crow era – for most Black communities, it was survival. It was finding a place, feeling safe, having community.  

The religion that Black communities learned during these times was designed to focus on the afterlife, as opposed to being liberated in this world – your crown is going to be after this world, so just continue to serve God. In a large part of the Black community today, especially those that are associated with the Black church, that particular idea is still pretty present, and we don’t always focus on mental health related to the here and now.

Often when I had challenges growing up, I was told to just pray about it. And if I shared more, if I showed emotion, I was often made to feel that I was not letting God guide, or not trusting God. I have worked with clients over the years who struggle with these messages and ways that the church has perpetuated certain oppressions.  

It is complex. How do we dismantle elements of that, while leaving those pieces that have been a foundation for our communities? How do we still stay connected, while also helping that community to let go of some of those narratives that are no longer serving us?

Q: What are some of the benefits of religion and spirituality for mental health, specifically among Black communities?

Affinity spaces are known to have a positive impact on your mental health. Those are spaces where you can feel connected and seen, and where you can be yourself without fear of being judged. Research continues to illuminate the positive impact these experiences have on your mental health.  

When you look at the history of the Black church, it was often a place where the Black community could be more than what their job titles were or what society had deemed them to be. They did not have to be invisible. It was an opportunity to be a part of something that made them feel important and connected. There's something about the importance of the Black church in the Black community today and the culture that comes with that. It’s why I’m still a part of that community today.

Q: Where does Black liberation theology (BLT) come in, and how do you propose that it might be helpful in a counseling setting?

I first came across Black liberation work during my seminary studies. Black liberation theology is considered a critical theory – a theory that questions the status quo with a focus on power dynamics and inequalities. It was designed to try to liberate Black communities from some of the oppressive theologies and worldviews that were used historically as a means of trying to keep Black people oppressed.  

More and more individuals in the Black community are seeking mental health support and counseling around how to navigate different aspects of their life. At the same time, more than half of Black Americans state that religion is very important to them, and the majority of Black Americans who attend church are members of a predominantly Black congregation.

In the counseling field, there really hasn't been a theoretical approach to specifically address how to liberate ourselves from some of the oppressive aspects of spirituality and religion. A theoretical approach like BLT provides guidance and justification. The particular approach that I presented in the article is designed to give counselors more guidance on how to address some of these areas that we as a field have not really touched on.

Q: What are some examples of what that approach might look like in a counseling session?

The use of it can be direct or indirect, depending on the client. As a counselor, you might have a client who is specifically saying, “This happened in my church, and I feel hurt, and I'm trying to figure out how to navigate it.”  

Indirectly, it’s also about supporting Black clients who are not coming to counseling specifically about something spiritual, but they have disclosed that they are a person of faith. Our belief system influences how we see every situation, because it's connected to our values. As a counselor, it's being able to keep in mind that these might be some of the messages or some of the things that your client might have experienced that could be influencing how they are navigating the world. It can open up that conversation in a different way.

Q: Why is cultural competence so important for school counselors?

We know that our schools are becoming more and more diverse. The majority of public school students are now students of color, and over the next 10 years, that number will continue to increase. As we become more and more diverse, we have to find ways to address the cultural needs and belief systems of all students.  

Traditional counseling approaches were almost all developed by white men in Western society, and they don't always fit the needs of communities of color, because they just don't take into consideration different perspectives – like faith, but also other cultural norms that might be important to consider. We're not saying that they aren't necessary, but that it’s important that we look at them a little differently and try to fill some of the gaps.

Q: What is the next step in this line of research?

It is a joy to be doing this work. When I first graduated from my master’s program, these types of approaches were so off the beaten path, there was not much openness to publishing.  

The next step is to collect more data on the efficacy of these different approaches. I hope as a field we'll begin to look at client outcomes for individuals that use nontraditional approaches. There is so much work to be done, but I feel like we are taking steps to address some of the needs that clients and students have.  

The key to being culturally competent is having awareness. It’s about building your own self-awareness and also becoming more aware of clients’ needs. This is another point of information that counselors can have. 

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Laura Hoxworth

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  • Human Services
  • Center for Race and Public Education in the South