Alumni Spotlights

Advancing Culturally Competent Care

In the 17 years since she earned her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Niagara University and was named Outstanding Mental Health Counseling Student, Kimber Shelton, M.S.Ed.,’05, has accomplished much. She earned her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Georgia; completed an American Psychological Association-approved internship and postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia State University’s Counseling and Testing Center; and published research from her dissertation, “Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: The Experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Queer Psychotherapy Clients,” in both the Journal of Counseling Psychology and Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

After earning her Ph.D., she worked at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Counseling Center as a staff psychologist and coordinator of diversity programs; participated in the APA Division 17 Counseling Psychology’s inaugural leadership academy; and served on the APA Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity and as the co-chair for the Texas Psychological Association’s Diversity Division. In 2016, she co-wrote her first book, “The College and University Counseling Manual: Integrating Essential Services Across the Campus” with her NU mentor, Dr. Shannon Hodges. She has been honored with Niagara University’s College of Education Notable Alumnus award and received the UGA College of Education Professional Achievement Award.

Today, the married mother of twin daughters is a licensed psychologist and owner of KLS Counseling & Consulting Services in Dallas, Texas, where she works with individuals and couples and specializes in cultural diversity, LGBTQ, trauma, and relationship issues. She also teaches in Yorkville University’s master’s in mental health counseling program and provides mental health and diversity-focused trainings to universities and organizations. Her current focus is on providing culturally competent clinical training to mental health professionals, and one of her most recent endeavors in this area is co-editing “A Handbook on Counseling African American Women: Psychological Symptoms, Treatments, and Case Studies.”

Book Cover webHer work with Black women inspired the book. My private practice primarily serves Black women who have therapy and other health-related experiences in which microaggressions, cultural miscommunications, and biased care occur. When Black women enter treatment, they need to be met with respect, culturally relevant interventions, and validation of their lived experiences. Those I work with specifically sought therapy from a Black woman therapist, as they believed there would be greater familiarity, comfort, and understanding when working with someone with a shared background.

The authors faced their own challenges as they wrote the book. It is important to note that chapters were being written during 2020 and 2021, and that most of the contributors identify as Black or Latina. Chapter authors were faced with a sociocultural reality in which Black and Brown individuals were publicly victimized, murders were filmed, and civil rights were challenged and removed. In many ways, writing this book meant we were also writing about our own realities as we, too, faced mental health challenges related to vicarious and racial trauma, and gendered racism.

She hopes the book creates spaces that invite Black women to heal. Broadly speaking, we hope that readers are better prepared to provide competent mental health care to Black women. Specifically, we hope readers engage in self-reflection and practice cultural humility to dismantle biased beliefs held about Black women, increase their knowledge on the lived experiences of Black women and issues that impact their mental wellness, and advance their skill level in providing culturally meaningful interventions.

She has always been interested in advancing culturally competent practice. Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to work with individuals holding diverse ethnic, cultural, immigrational, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religious identities. But even in my own clinical background, there has been a deficit of training in culturally competent mental health practices for Black women. Mental health professionals are traditionally trained in Western therapy models that are normed on white and male populations. Culturally incompetent care can cause Black women to refrain from entering treatment, prematurely terminate care, and be erroneously diagnosed. Furthermore, less than 5% of mental health professionals identify as Black; therefore, most Black women may find themselves in therapy relationships with a therapist who is culturally different from them.

She considers it a gift to work with Black women. Black women overcome cultural stigma, internalized shame, and past experiences of bias to even make it into the therapy room. For many, their mental wellness is challenged by external factors, which may be related to issues in equity in pay and respect at their jobs, having matriarchal and caregiver expectations placed upon them, disparate and dehumanizing treatment after trauma exposure, and cultural norms related to expression, appearance, and speech being devalued and judged. Many of the clinical issues Black women present with could be alleviated if people and systems better respected Black lives.

Her Niagara University experience started her on this journey. Interestingly, I applied to another university’s M.A. in psychology program and was not admitted, but ultimately, things worked out well for me, because an M.S. in mental health counseling was aligned with my career goals in ways that an M.A. in psychology was not. I immediately felt connected to the program and appreciated the focus on psychotherapy and ethical client care. My advisor, Dr. Shannon Hodges, invited me to write with him, encouraged me to seek practicum placements and continue my education, and challenged my professional and personal development. From this, I learned to continue to seek safe spaces for guidance and support. I am grateful to have experienced positive mentorship and connections along my journey and feel honored to be a place of support and guidance for my clients, students, supervisees, and trainees.