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5 Roadblocks to Decolonizing Therapy

I am often asked “How do we decolonize the field?” Of course there are many answers but one that comes up for me is that we need to stop the worship of individualism and we need to stop equating individualism with wellness.

The following roadblocks are in quotes because each of them can and often are important aspects of therapeutic healing, however, in the field they are also taken-or-granted components for successful therapy with little consideration for culture or context. These are exclusively individualistic perspectives that are often imposed on our clients by well-meaning therapists. 

“Personal Responsibility” 

Many times therapists use this concept with blinders that exclude context, history, and systems of inequality that can limit or impact the ease of movement toward healing for Brown and other racially marginalized populations. If we impose this concept without context it further invalidates the experiences of our people. When we bring this concept of ‘personal responsibility” out in session as “lesson” for our Brown and BIPOC clients, we  are most likely imposing a White, Eurocentric, individualistic notion of “responsibility” and have stopped looking for the existing competence and autonomy that the client currently possess. 

“Not ready for change”

Typical help offering behaviors of therapists can be met with a hesitancy from Brown and BIPOC clients to address the issue directly and clients may continue to speak indirectly. When this happens, we should take note not to solely evaluate this behavior from a Western perspective and assume the client is “not ready” for change. Judging indirect communication as unhealthy and avoidant is an error often made when we only know how to look at the world from an individualistic lens. Often it is not the client who is not ready to change, but us who are not ready to change.

“Can’t change others. Let’s focus on you”

This phrase and sentiment is often used to redirect clients when they begin to discuss behaviors of others in their lives that they see as problematic for themselves. However, this perspective is also overtly individualistic and can also be patronizing for a client who is more collectivistic.  Sometimes focusing on others’ behaviors is just as important if you have a more relational view of the self. Additionally, others’ behaviors are crucial to consider when those behaviors are racist, discriminatory, or oppressive toward Brown and BIPOC clients. 

Doing “work” in therapy 

This is a clearly capitalistic notion that implies we need to put more effort toward our therapy goals or we will remain stuck. This becomes problematic when counseling is only seen as successful if there is this “work”. Sometimes the process requires things to settle. We need to be still and observe. This notion only counts success if there is a product to show for it. 

“My” client

This also is a capitalistic notion that connotates ownership. If we use ownership langues it reinforces a hierarchy. Although, this way of speaking may not directly have a negative impact on clients, it is still a roadblock to decolonizing because it allows us to ride the status quo of an ownership mentally. This is particularly important when we are actively trying to decolonize. We must do all we can in subtle and not subtle ways to remind ourselves that clients do not belong to us, especially Brown and BIPOC clients.

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:

  1. Plática is a pathway to personal and therapeutic connection. 
  1. We have the cultural practice of Personalismo. 
  1. Our cultural styles of interaction values a treatment that emphasizes affect rather than cognition (Roll, Millen, & Martinez, 1980). 
  1. Interconnectedness is a central belief in Chicanx/Latinx healing (Cosmas-Diaz, 2006).

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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). 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 

Statement on the Death of George Floyd #GeorgeFloyd

The Institute of Chicana/o Psychology stands in solidarity with the current call and actions of those outraged by yet another tragic, unjustified killing of a Black man by the police. The death of George Floyd is another indication of the unsafe climate for Black and Brown people, which is further being fueled by the careless, irresponsible rhetoric of the current administration (President Trump).
The Institute recognizes this as another link in the insidious chain that began with the conquest, colonization, and slavery of Black and Brown peoples.
Until our society truly values and understand that our history continues to play out in our present, then black and brown wellness and well-being will continue to be an act of resistance and survival. Our wellness may need to be anger and an uncompromising stand for self-determination. We need to continue to DECOLONIZE our understanding of Wellness, Justice, and Freedom. We borrow the sentiments of Chicano psychologist, Dr. Manuel Ramirez, III – “As psychologists, social scientists, and educational and mental health professionals, we need to be the uncompromising opposition in society. We cannot afford to be accommodationists because freedom and self-respect cannot be negotiated or compromised.” We are experiencing a range of emotions; that is understandable and necessary. Stay connected (if helpful) and stay well. Let us collectively support each other, collectively join for justice, collectively move toward Liberation & Healing. Remember that in this darkness……we…are the light. Su lucha is mi lucha.
In Non-Violent Solidarity, The Institute for Chicana/o Psychology

Institute of Chicana/o Psychology statement on the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
#GeorgeFloyd #Solidarity #Justice #SocialJustice #LiberationandHealing #DECOLONIZE #BlackLivesMatter #xicanpsych #ChicanxPsychology #LiberationPsychology #BlackPsychology #BlackandBrown

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.

Ethnic Identity

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.

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