Therapy is Ours: Healing Through Talk is Ancestral Reconnection
Talking as a path toward healing is one of our many ancestral gifts. Although the roots of what is now known as therapy was not developed with Brown people in mind, the wisdom of sharing our struggles and pains through talk has a long tradition in our ancestral past. Our indigenous ancestors would reach out to elders, to their community, their circle for healing. Chicano psychologist, Amadao Padilla, in his research talked of the tonalpouhqui, who were individuals in Mexica (Aztec) society who focused on mental health issues and healed people via lengthy conversations.
Despite the stigma around therapy, it’s important to realize that even our current cultural characteristics lend themselves to a process of healing through talk (i.e. counseling) in various ways. Below are some common aspects of current therapy that are similar to current cultural practices in our Brown population:
- Plática is a pathway to personal and therapeutic connection.
- Our common cultural practice of plática brings us a sense of comfort; a sense of home. In talking with a therapist, plática is an important part of the process. Imagine the therapist is inviting you over for café and pan dulce. Although therapy is more than just this, the practice of plática is a culturally relevant way to introduce the concept of counseling.
- We have the cultural practice of Personalismo.
- Personalismo is about individualizing each interaction you have with others. Its purpose is to know, more personally, the person in front of you. We see this practiced often in our communities. In the same way, therapy is always customized with each different, unique person who comes into the room. The therapist’s job to learn about your specific story about your life that you are bringing to the process.
- Our cultural styles of interaction values a treatment that emphasizes affect rather than cognition (Roll, Millen, & Martinez, 1980).
- In their discussion of the 7 Latina/o/x psychological strengths, Raza psychologists Hector Adames and Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas found that we have a strong ability and desire to share strong emotions with each other (i.e. collective emotional expression). Likewise, a main aspect of current counseling is to “connect with our emotions.” Speaking from the heart (affect) is a significant way in which we communicate with each other. This is important for therapists to know so that they can find a way to translate that emotional expression/connection that happens in our daily life into the “emotional talk” that they are trying to facilitate in the room.
- Interconnectedness is a central belief in Chicanx/Latinx healing (Cosmas-Diaz, 2006).
- We know that collectivism, interdependence, and familismo are threads that run through Brown culture in many aspects of our lives. This sense of community and peoplehood is often seen at the (extended) family level. This value can also be seen in counseling as therapists have increasingly realized that we can’t always “do it all ourselves” as many self-care gurus will say. Thus, therapists should be able to realize and recognize this cultural value that we also carry with us when we are in the healing process of counseling.
For these reasons, I say “therapy is ours.”.. In other words, although going to a therapist may still feel very foreign, many of the concepts that exist in therapy are not forein to our community. In fact, our ancestors have practiced “healing through talk” for centuries. So, yes, therapy is ours; and not just for Raza, but for other communities of color who have strong collectivistic values. It is another healing way that we can reclaim and reconnect to.
Of course it is up to the therapist to respectfully incorporate these practices and connect them to treatment, however, it is also important for our community to know that our culture already has practices that the mental health field proclaims are so important for successful therapy.
5 Barriers to Therapy for Raza
- The mental health field is not responsive to the importance of connectedness in our culture.
- The field continues to teach, train and operate from a predominantly individualistic, Western perspective. The mainstream approaches and theories are founded on an individualistic sense of “the self.” Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x populations are generally more collectivistic, valuing interdependence or pro-dependence.
- The mental health field is not responsive to the historical and contemporary marginalization of Raza
- The mental health field struggles to make the process of therapy less foreign and less inaccessible. It is not responsive to the fact that Raza have a long history of not feeling welcome by the profession (as well as a long history of marginalization from U.S. society’s major institutions such as health care and mental health care).
- The mental health field is not responsive to Raza who do not speak (or feel comfortable) speaking English.
- The field is not responsive to the language needs and preferences of many Raza clients. The amount of bilingual therapists is not proportional to the amount of bilingual Raza. In a nationwide APA survey, only 5.5 percent of psychologists, who may be Hispanic or another race or ethnicity, said they can provide services in Spanish.
- The mental health field is not responsive to the lack of Raza representation.
- Representation matters and the field is not doing enough to recruit and retain Brown students toward a path in mental health. This includes recruiting and retaining Brown faculty and instructors in the field. Only 6.9% of all therapists are Raza.
- The mental health field is not responsive to existing cultural preferences and practices that complements contemporary therapy.
- In a field that often champions “strength-based approaches”, they have not sufficiently utilized the strengths in Brown communities that can bridge the gaps in utilizing mental health services. Although there is real stigma associated with mental health treatment in our community, there are also many aspects of our culture that are very much in line with the process of therapy. We tend to prefer a focus on affect rather than cognition in our interactions. We value connecting with others (personalismo) and the notion of platica is firmly rooted in our ways of relating to each other. The field has not incorporated and responsively adjusted its approaches to actively include these aspects in mainstream therapy.
History and Current Relevance of Chicana/o Psychology: Addressing Mental Health in Mexican American & Latina/o Communities
In 2014, Fox News Latino cited that only 1 in 11 Latina/os seek mental health treatment. Chicana/o Psychology is rarely discussed as recourse to address this situation.
In 2004, Dr. Manuel Ramirez outlined The Tenets of Chicana/o Psychology, but the roots of Chicana/o Psychology run deeper. In 1977 the book “Chicano Psychology” was published. Still before that was the work of Dr. George I. Sanchez (considered the “Father of Chicana/o Psychology”), whose work in the 1930s shed light on the cultural bias of intelligence testing with children of Mexican descent. Still earlier, in pre-conquest Mexico, the Aztec (or Mexica) had specialists called tonalpouhqui, who focused on mental health issues, according to Dr. Amado Padilla in the 1984, 2nd edition of “Chicano Psychology”.
We focus here on three core aspects of Chicana/o Psychology: Ethnic Identity, Family, and Spirituality.
The notion of a strong ethnic identity is one that is particularly relevant for Chicana/o youth in our society. Dr. Martha Bernal (1931-2001), is the first known Chicana to obtain a doctoral degree in psychology in the U.S. and made significant research contributions in understanding the ethnic identity development of Chicana/o youth. A positive Chicana/o identity can be a buffer to the stereotypes, microaggressions, and blatant discrimination faced by Chicana/os. When working with youth who are exhibiting behavioral issues and who may be referred for individual or group counseling to address anger management, disruptive behaviors, even depression or anxiety; adding a component that directly addresses enhancing and strengthening one’s ethnic identity is strongly recommended and can have a direct effect on improving mental health, academic achievement, and overall well-being. This may include a multidisciplinary approach, where a bit of Chicana/o history is integrated into the method—developing a positive identity within a society where one’s history is not acknowledged is difficult at best.
Another key Chicana/o cultural characteristic is the notion of familismo. This is more than just the notion that Chicana/os are a “family-oriented” people. Most peoples of the world are “family-oriented”. However, in our Western, individualistic society, it is the manner in which the family-centeredness of Chicana/os manifests that may conflict with dominant notions of “healthy families”. Accepted models of healthy development emphasize the individual separating from their immediate family as they grow into adulthood. However, Chicana/o families often operate from a more collectivist perspective, which views individuals growing into adulthood both separately as well as a part of their immediate and extended families. Thus, the family psychology notion of “enmeshment”—a concept describing families where personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development—may not be applicable to Chicana/o families. When mental health issues are present, asking about family and even asking if family should be involved should always be part of psychotherapy treatment. Not to do so can be deemed negligent practice by the mental health provider and certainly not culturally responsive treatment. The role the client holds in the family may be a crucial component in understanding their mental health struggles. The notion of interdependence is much more appropriate than the traditional notion of dependency.
Although the role of spirituality and spiritual beliefs can vary widely among Chicana/os, its importance is almost always present in some manner when it comes to mental health. Whether religion plays a central role in everyday life, or if spirituality is on the margins, for many Chicana/os some form of spiritual beliefs or traditions remain generation after generation. Chicana/o Psychology recognizes the role of spirituality not only in how one may conceptualize the reasons for a mental illness, but also in ways that it may help with alleviating symptoms. The line between spirituality and mental health is not always clearly defined for Chicana/os. Learning where this line is and finding out its meaning for Chicana/o clients is key. Psychotherapists are obliged to meet the client “where they are at”. The onus is on us to try to empathize and understand the role of those we serve. While it is deemed offensive or rude in our current society to ask outright about one’s spiritual beliefs or religion, in the therapeutic context there are ways in which we can and must address this issue. For example, rather than asking “What is your religion?” you may ask “Did you grow up with a particular spiritual or religious tradition?” and can be followed up with “Are there any spiritual or religious beliefs that you feel guide you today?”
Chicana/o Psychology offers an important framework for understanding mental health issues in this community. As the mental health field continues to move toward more culturally responsive approaches, it can learn much from the history and current advances in Chicana/o Psychology.