Nov 22, 2022, 5:00 am UTC

5 min

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Q&A: Mental health entrepreneur Micheline Khan on what culturally competent care should look like

Micheline Khan calls herself an accidental entrepreneur. She is a scientist by profession who now leads Althea Therapy, an online platform that connects Black, Indigenous, and racialized people to mental health providers who can understand their culture. 

Khan pivoted into the world of tech and mental health early on during the COVID pandemic as anti-Black and anti-Asian racism surged worldwide. Her goal was to leverage technology to destigmatize therapy and improve mental health outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and racialized Canadians. Althea Therapy — named after Khan's mother (althea means “healing” in Greek) — was born.  
Since then, the platform has built a community of clients and mental health and wellness professionals. Together, they are tackling the mental health impacts of racism and discrimination in the therapy room.    

“What really started out as a side project grew into kind of this necessary community tool for racialized people and Indigenous people across the country,” Khan says.  

wmnHealth spoke to Khan about what culturally competent care should be at its best, where to find it, and what's next for Althea Therapy. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How do you define culturally competent care? 

I look at it as therapists aiming to create space for people's cultural context, which shapes your overall life experience. It's acknowledging and honoring the intersections of multiple identities, whether age, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or religion. For instance, a culturally competent therapist might avoid heteronormative language when asking about upbringing or relationships. So instead of saying, are you attracted to men or women, they’d ask, who are you attracted to in romantic relationships? Another example is understanding the different language or terminology people from certain cultures use to describe mental health issues. In some cases, they might even describe feeling physical pain when experiencing depression or mental health issues. Therapists with the right training and who are culturally aware can pick up on and realize that mental health issues can appear in many forms. 

Althea Therapy recently introduced community agreements for therapists listed on the platform. What are those agreements intended to achieve?  

The goal is to ensure the mental health professionals we're engaging with have both the lived experience and tools to help people in these communities. They need the proper training, like anti-oppression or culturally responsive training. The community agreements are designed to ensure that we're aligned on what it means to practice cultural humility and culturally responsive mental health care, respect the dignity and agency of clients in all of their intersections, and have the tools to provide responsive mental health support.  

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What advice would you give to people who are looking for culturally competent care? 

I think it's always helpful to book a free 15- to 20-minute consultation that most, not all, therapists offer. They help you gauge whether you have a rapport, which is really important in the therapeutic process because it's a place where you will be vulnerable. You could also ask the therapist if they've been trained on discrimination or racism and how that impacts mental health or if they have worked with people from your particular culture. That gives you a baseline about whether they are a person who's going to understand your needs and cultural context.  

How has Althea Therapy evolved since its launch? 

I’m placing a lot more effort on education, which is something I’ve realized the community needs. We want to provide a host of resources to help destigmatize therapy for people in communities who don't typically have access to these services. And we are prioritizing evidence-based information and making sure to partner with research organizations to develop that. That has been the major shift. 

What’s missing in the conversation about women’s mental health, especially for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women? 

I’d stress the importance of community care, of creating and cultivating a community culture of mental health awareness, because oftentimes, people can't solve their issues alone. Recovery is a difficult journey. And if we don't cultivate community care, care from peers, and a supportive network, it's so hard for individuals to pull themselves up on their own. And so, I think it's an important thing that we need to think through and offer more services around. 


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