Centre for Diversity in Counselling and Psychotherapy Launch

Interdisciplinary counselling and mental health for a multicultural world

Modern South Africa is widely celebrated for being a ‘rainbow nation’ - a multicultural, multilingual and multiracial society that promotes unity through diversity. But recent outbreaks of student protests, charges of racism, continued talk of inequality and other economic woes in the country, and anxiety about violence, all suggest that South Africa is still struggling with diversity in many ways.

To help address these challenges, the University of the Western Cape launched its new Centre for Diversity in Counselling and Psychotherapy (CDCP) on Monday, 14 March 2016. The Centre represents a partnership with the CDCP at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto in Canada, Christ University in India, and the University of Verona* in Italy.

“The launch of the centre is of critical importance to UWC, but even more critical is the work that we hope will emanate from this collaboration,” said Professor Tyrone Pretorius, UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor (and a trained psychologist himself) at the launch. “It’s more than an exercise in intellectual curiosity - psychologists working together can make a positive contribution to society.”

The CDCP will draw on expertise across faculties - notably from disciplines such as clinical psychology (CHS), educational psychology (Education) and industrial psychology(EMS) at UWC. The aim will be to conduct research, design training programmes, develop interventions and contribute to policies that can address the challenges of diversity as they relate to counselling and psychotherapeutic interventions - not just in South Africa, but also in the home countries of the partner institutions.

Professor Mokgadi Moletsane, Deputy Dean of Research in UWC’s Faculty of Education, is the driving force behind the Centre, which grew out of collaborative work she did with OISE. Too often, she noted, practitioners are ill-equipped to provide counselling to those from different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds.

“Mental health practitioners must not disregard the importance of diversity,” Moletsane said. “The reality is that mental health professionals are faced with tremendous challenges of assessing and providing psychological services across a diverse and multicultural nation, and existing approaches may not be up to the task.”

Among other areas, the Centre will look at emerging trends and controversies related to multiculturalism and diversity in psychology, counselling and psychotherapy. Scholars will engage with communities and organisations at different levels, especially within indigenous local communities. Research will seek to deepen an understanding of multiculturalism, plurality and diversity to develop suitable treatments in mental health.

Nations standing together for mental health

Of course, South Africa does not face the challenges of diversity alone. In developing new models of counselling and psychotherapy, the CDCP can make a dramatic contribution to the field as a whole as it explores issues of trauma, diverse belief systems, forgiveness and gender-based violence, amongst others.

“We hear a lot, and in different contexts, that our psychological training is using borrowed models, which is a challenge that we face in India as well,” said Associate Professor Tony George of the Department of Psychology at Christ University. “The need to provide training versus the lack of adequate models is a big tension that we grapple with, and I think one of the goals of a centre like this would be to narrow those gaps.”

Thanks to globalisation, there are no more truly monocultural societies, argued Agostino Portera, Professor of Intercultural Education at the University of Verona. This provides a range of opportunities for dialogue, but also poses some very real – yet  also scholarly – challenges.

“We should start with the theories that we already have, but then try to develop more that take into consideration the new reality and the complexity of the differences that we have,” said Portera.

Canada, too, faces issues of multiculturalism. The city of Toronto, specifically, is among the most diverse in North America, explained Professor Jeanne Watson of the OISE – over half its population hails from outside the country. Partnering with UWC offers an opportunity to expand the disciplines of counselling and wellbeing.

“South Africa is in a unique position to offer cutting-edge ideas about mental health and wellness,” said Watson. “These ideas are of great interest to the rest of the world.”

The Centre is for now a virtual facility. Much of this week will be dedicated to plotting the way ahead, including developing the programmes that it will offer.

But there’s no doubt about the role that the Centre can play as more and more nations struggle with diversity and multiculturalism.

“We hope that the overall impact of this collaboration and association will be to enhance our ideas and our thinking about multiculturalism, diversity and plurality in South Africa, Canada, India, Italy and beyond.”

*Yes, that’s the city where Shakespeare set the classic Romeo and Juliet.