Spirituality as a Cultural Asset for Culturally Diverse Youth in Urban Schools

By Yeh, Christine J.; Borrero, Noah E. et al. | Counseling and Values, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Spirituality as a Cultural Asset for Culturally Diverse Youth in Urban Schools


Yeh, Christine J., Borrero, Noah E., Shea, Munyi, Counseling and Values


Spiritual issues are culturally important for many youth in urban schools. In this article, the authors describe how spirituality is associated with cultural values, mental health, coping strategies, and adjustment among culturally diverse youth. Using the case of a 17-year-old Samoan high school student, the authors demonstrate how spiritual issues related to faith, meaning making, and cultural identity can be addressed in a school counseling context.

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In this article, we discuss the role of spirituality in counseling culturally diverse youth in urban schools. Using cultural and social justice perspectives, we emphasize the role of counselors as culturally competent social justice change agents (Goodman et al., 2004). The evolving and complex relationship between youth and their spiritual beliefs is also discussed as being interwoven with their multiple cultural, religious, and academic identities. Using a case example, we describe how school counselors in particular, and school systems more generally, can provide support for how students work on spiritual issues.

Urban schools are becoming increasingly culturally diverse, which underscores the need for school counselors to be open to a range of cultural beliefs that may be spiritually embedded. Specifically, school-age children and youth make up 25% of the total U.S. population. Of these youth, 48% are racial and ethnic minorities (Anne E. Casey Foundation, 2008), and 22% of youth in the United States are from immigrant families. These demographic statistics highlight not only the extensive racial and cultural diversity of adolescents in the United States but also a need for reconceptualizing school counseling services for these growing groups.

Spiritual issues are especially salient in urban schools because ethnic minorities often consider spiritual beliefs and practices in their conceptualizations of well-being (Sue & Sue, 2007). For example, researchers (Chiang, Hunter, & Yeh, 2004; Cook & Wiley, 2000; Tiago de Melo, 1998) have suggested that African American and Latino(a) cultural values emphasize religious and spiritual beliefs, including the use of prayer, in coping with stress. For many Latino(a) groups, connection with the spiritual world via folk healers is a culturally relevant method of dealing with suffering (Sue & Sue, 2007). Among the many Asian American ethnic groups, spirituality has been viewed as a source of strength when dealing with the loss of a loved one (Inman, Yeh, Madan-Bahel, & Nath, 2007). Moreover, a central aspect of African-centered coping is the emphasis on harmony with nature, spirituality, and collective consciousness (Utsey, Adams, & Bolden, 2000). For many African Americans, healthy functioning is inseparable from their spiritual lives (Sue & Sue, 2007).

Interdependence and Spirituality

Traditional counseling models focus on individual, verbally oriented, insight-focused direct communication and do not incorporate the indigenous nature of many cultural groups' values and beliefs (Sue & Sue, 2007). For example, many school counselors and mental health practitioners make clear distinctions between physical, mental, and spiritual existence and mental health (Obasi, 2002) and exclude spiritual worldviews and healing methods from their practice (Sue & Sue, 2007). Although individual therapy is the dominant paradigm for school counseling, this form of intervention may be culturally inappropriate for students in urban schools who may see their psychological, physical, and spiritual worlds as interconnected (Yeh, Hunter, Madan-Bahel, Chiang, & Kwong, 2004). In fact, many culturally diverse clients may want to discuss spiritual themes in their life, but their practitioners are unprepared or uncomfortable to do so (Hage, Hopson, Siegel, Payton, & DeFanti, 2006; Sue & Sue, 2007).

Although spiritual issues have not been prioritized in school counseling, the relationship between spirituality and physical and mental health is overwhelmingly positive (e. …

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