What is Culturally Competent Care For Substance Abuse?

Most substance abuse professionals stress that effective substance abuse care is not a one-size-fits-all solution. You read it on almost every addiction treatment program’s website because the reality of it is undeniable. But there’s a big difference between understanding the importance of individualized treatment and providing it.

There are plenty of clear reasons why people benefit from individualized treatment plans. For example, someone with opioid addiction needs different care than someone with alcohol addiction. Although they share the same core struggle, they will benefit more from individualized solutions.

Deeper factors are also at play when developing suitable treatment plans for substance abuse. Not everyone fits into one social, cultural, or economic  mold. People grew up in different environments with different experiences, and each of these affects the development and treatment of substance use disorder.

The need for comprehensive addiction treatment expands far beyond the different types of drugs people do. Treatment programs must consider  various ways people grew up and came to the point of drug addiction. This strategy is called culturally competent care and is a critical, revolutionary approach to substance abuse treatment.

What is Culturally Competent Care?

Culturally competent care is clinical care that considers people’s varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It also recognizes that not everyone has the same access to care, nor can that care come from the same angle for every person it tries to help.

Cultural competence is not a new concept. Medical professionals have discussed and implemented it as early as the 1980s.1 Clinicians noticed that people from different cultures and backgrounds showed different beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding medical treatment. They realized they were doing a disservice to culturally and linguistically diverse populations by trying to treat everyone with the same approach.

Medical professionals instead decided to provide specialized services that considered these nuances. This included things like offering translation services, materials in the patient’s native language, and understanding and appreciating different cultural perspectives. Research suggests that culturally-informed services increase retention and improve treatment outcomes for these previously underserved populations.2

Cultural Barriers to Substance Abuse Treatment

When someone struggles with an alcohol or drug problem, substance abuse treatment tends to be the first suggestion. Whether it’s an inpatient, partial hospitalization, or outpatient program, some form of professional treatment is often the first line of defense.

But what happens when cultural barriers limit access to treatment? Many families don’t see professional treatment services as the front line in the fight against addiction. This may stem from factors such as an emphasis on addiction’s effects on the family, social shame, or perception within the community. Other barriers to treatment services could include faith or language differences.

So much stigma surrounds substance abuse, especially among minority populations, that it’s difficult to provide adequate services. But addressing some of those barriers through culturally competent substance abuse care is an important way to initiate change. Celebrating differences instead of trying to stamp them out will encourage more people to seek help.

Why Substance Abuse Treatment Needs Culturally Competent Care

Since its introduction, numerous fields have incorporated culturally competent care and refined it to meet the needs of their patients. Substance abuse treatment is an area where this approach is especially necessary. Applying a culturally competent lens to addiction treatment services has the potential to save thousands of lives.

Plenty of studies show that culturally and linguistically diverse populations are disproportionately affected by substance abuse. Additionally, evidence indicates that Latino and African-American individuals are less likely to seek treatment than white individuals. Further, those who do enter treatment are also more likely to leave before completing it.3

This proves the vital importance of culturally competent care for substance abuse. Every person deserves the help of addiction treatment; cultural differences should never serve as a barrier to this life-saving care. While some programs do understand and implement the approach, too many only talk about it without actualizing the practice. Substance abuse treatment programs seem to fall behind when it comes to cultural competence.

Increasing Awareness of Culturally Competent Care for Substance Abuse

Thankfully, researchers and organizations alike are stressing the need for culturally competent care for substance abuse. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently published a handout that stresses the need for considering cultural differences among individuals in treatment.4 A study published in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy explained that culturally competent treatment practices improve treatment retention and completion rates.2

Since culturally diverse populations are proven to experience higher rates of addictive disorders, substance abuse treatment professionals must respond accordingly. Providing informed, individualized care includes considering cultural differences. 

Emerge Recovery is dedicated to the crucial nature of culturally competent care for substance abuse. After too many years of watching some addiction treatment approaches take advantage of or completely miss the opportunity to serve underserved communities, we decided to do things differently.

To learn more about how Emerge Recovery can help, schedule a No-Fee Recovery Activation Call today.


1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Improving Cultural Competence.

2. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. (2016). Cultural Competence in the Treatment of Addictions: Theory, Practice and Evidence.

3. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. (2011). Cultural Competence in Outpatient Substance Abuse Treatment.

4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Cultural Considerations in Addiction Treatment.

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I’m here to help you get sober and stay sober. We’ll uncover what’s keeping you sick and why you’re stuck in the same cycle. Parts of you are begging to be healed but you can’t do it alone. Emerge Recovery is the first step toward learning to navigate and thrive in a life free from substances.

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