Going Abroad to Understand the Mental Health of Latinos in US

For decades, mental health professionals have been trying to understand why Latinos in the United States, who suffer from mental health issues at a higher rate than whites, receive far fewer treatment for psychological services. Latinos are not getting mental help, and no one knew why.

Now some colleges have taken a unique step to find the answer: they are sending their students abroad.

"A lot of psychology models are based on Eurocentric ideas about boundaries and personal space, things that don’t translate to Latino culture," says Stacey Lambert director of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology’s Latino Mental Health Program. "Latinos have a very warm personal style. But traditionally, therapists don’t reveal anything about themselves, don’t hug their patients. There’s a formality to the process that Latinos don’t understand."

There is also the issue of language. Though many U.S. Latinos speak English, some may prefer to conduct therapy in Spanish.  “If you are talking about painful emotional issues, it’s easier to do that in your first language,” Lambert says.

Students in MSSP’s Latino Mental Health Program, which has grown from 7 in 2005 to 21 in 2011, are sent to Costa Rica and Ecuador over the course of two summers to hone their language skills and also work with Hispanic mental health patients in the field.

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Alyson Theeman, a doctoral student in the program, says strengthening her Spanish has made her a more effective therapist with her Latino clients.

"Being able to speak with them in their native language makes it easier for me to show empathy and understanding toward them and their issues," she says.

Working in the field abroad has also helped.

"One of the advantages of working in mental health systems abroad is that you learn a lot of the technical words for psychological disorders in Spanish," she says. "For instance, I learned that in some cultures, there are different ways to say depressed, depending on whether a person is very sad or just slightly sad."

Indeed, Latinos use a variety of Spanish words to describe their mental health symptoms, according to Hector Torres, coordinator of the Center for Latino Mental Health at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Some examples, he says, include “susto,” meaning fright, “nervios,” meaning nerves, “mal de ojo,” meaning evil eye and “ataque de nervios,” meaning attack of nerves.

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At CSPP’s Center for Latino Mental Health, which began in 2007 with 10 students and has grown to 30, students can earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology with a concentration in Latino Mental Health.

Torres hopes his students will start to break down the barriers that are keeping Latinos from getting the psychological care they need.

Without such training, he says, there will continue to be “miscommunication, unethical practices, misdiagnosis, and the use of ineffective treatment” among Latino mental health patients and mental health issues will continue to disproportionately affect the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. population.

Nancy Averett is a freelancer based in Ohio.

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