How to Implement Culturally Competent Substance Abuse Care

Substance abuse affects all kinds of people regardless of age, gender, religion, profession, socioeconomic status, and other factors. These individuals grew up in different areas, have different beliefs, and come from different cultures. You must acknowledge and account for these differences when providing substance abuse treatment. The shift toward culturally competent substance abuse care is a necessary change to the addiction treatment paradigm.

Trying to help people from varying backgrounds and experiences with a single mold is far from an effective or understanding approach to care. Cultural competence in substance abuse treatment is a vital change in the way providers meet people where they are in their recovery journey.

Now that you have a better idea of what culturally competent care for substance abuse is, what steps can you take to incorporate it into your practice? These practical suggestions will start you in the right direction as you learn how to implement culturally competent care into your substance abuse treatment process. 

Adopt cultural humility

Adopting an attitude of cultural humility is the first part of implementing culturally competent care.1 It’s easy to move through life without stopping to realize that your experience of the world is only one of the billions. But clinicians learn to step back from this myopic worldview and recognize that they are one part of the greater whole. Cultural humility embodies this shift in perspective and involves a willingness to demonstrate respect when working with individuals with different cultural identities, worldviews, and values.

Recognize cultural differences and beliefs

Some people believe they avoid being insensitive by avoiding or ignoring cultural differences and treating everyone the same. In reality, it’s more insensitive to refuse to recognize and acknowledge disparities in culture and belief. Embracing differences is the best way to show respect for those with diverse experiences.

Do not make assumptions

Never make assumptions about a person’s culture or beliefs based on their appearance. Always ask questions instead of assuming how someone may think, feel, or behave. Even people within the same cultural group have various experiences; no two people have the same story. Making assumptions is guaranteed to eliminate trust and understanding with your clients. It’s better to ask for clarification than make incorrect assumptions.

Provide truly individualized treatment

Because no two people have the same story, regardless of where they come from, individualized treatment is crucial. Most programs claim to provide individualized treatment plans but not all of them follow through. Some may make small adjustments based on need but few take a truly individualized approach with each client who comes under their care. Offering culturally competent care means treating every client like the individual they are and offering support that best suits their experience.

Hire diverse staff

If you run or are part of a larger substance abuse treatment facility, ensure diversity among your staff. It is difficult to truly embrace cultural differences when every treatment provider on the team comes from a similar background. A diverse staff improves your program’s ability to provide culturally competent care.

Understand that you will make mistakes

It’s easy to want to avoid making any mistakes as you begin to embrace cultural competence in your practice. Once you learn how important it is to recognize unique cultural experiences, you’ll want to get it right every time. However, nobody is perfect, even the best clinicians. Understand that you will make mistakes not only in the beginning, but through your entire career. Accepting your imperfection early on will make it easier to move forward when you inevitably make a mistake.

Be willing to admit when you’re wrong

You can’t only understand that you will make mistakes; you must also be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Acknowledging your mistakes is part of the learning process. The humility required to recognize when you’re in the wrong will only strengthen your ability to provide culturally competent care. Cultural competence in addiction treatment doesn’t mean having the answers all the time; it means a constant effort to meet clients where they are and provide compassionate and comprehensive care accordingly.

Remain teachable

Ultimately, the most important part of implementing culturally competent care for substance abuse is to remain teachable. No one will ever do things perfectly all the time. Change is ongoing in the world of evidence-based treatment. Remaining teachable ensures you will always be ready to make adjustments as things arise, no matter how attached you may have been to a previous method or approach. The willingness to embrace change is essential to providing effective care that brings about lasting results and recovery.


1. Advances in Addiction & Recovery. (2021). Cultural Considerations in Addiction Treatment.

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