Why Latinos Can Benefit From a Culturally Competent Therapist


The first time Jacqueline Garcia sought therapy, she was in college. She had lived in Tijuana until the age of 12 and had struggled to make the transition when her family immigrated to the United States.

She signed up for a first therapy session with a mental health professional, but never made a second appointment. She said she didn’t feel like her white therapist understood or validated her experiences.

“I felt a bit disillusioned, but this experience helped me realize that I had to find someone I would feel comfortable with,” Garcia told The Times in Spanish.

Five years passed before Garcia was ready to seek a therapist again. She wanted to work with a bilingual mental health professional who could understand her childhood and its effects on her life as a young adult.

“I could manage very well [with the new therapist]. In that first session, I was comfortable enough to explain my feelings that I had buried in me for so long, ”said Garcia, now a clinical social worker based in Los Angeles.

“Having someone who is not culturally competent and / or informed can lead to microaggressions, to feeling misunderstood or even to perpetuating oppressive behaviors,” said Lydiana Garcia (who is unrelated to Jacqueline Garcia), a Los Angeles-based psychologist.

A culturally competent mental health professional, on the other hand, aims to be sensitive and understand your cultural background. This includes your values, race, and religious or spiritual beliefs.

A therapist with this type of training allows you to focus on talking about your experiences and how you feel without having to explain the nuances of your family dynamics or upbringing.

Here are some tips for Latinos looking for a culturally competent therapist from Lydiana Garcia; Katheryn Perez, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Burbank; and Angelica Tello, assistant professor of counseling at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Why it matters

There is often “shame and guilt about wanting to start therapy and your Latin American family not supporting it,” Perez said.

This shame, she said, comes from an internal barrier of believing that mental health services are “solo for locos”- only for fools.

A culturally competent professional, Perez said, would understand why it was so difficult for you to seek help in the first place.

“It really helps build that relationship between the client and the therapist. The client generally feels more comfortable and secure which helps in the healing process, ”she said.

To ask questions

To determine if a mental health professional will meet your needs, Perez recommends that you conduct a short interview. Ask questions such as:

  • How do you experience my culture or my particular background?
  • Do you understand the values ​​and beliefs associated with the Latino family, and what that means?
  • Have you had clients from different cultural backgrounds?
  • Have you ever had a Latin client?
  • How do you understand how white privilege and oppression affects people of color?

If you feel more comfortable expressing your thoughts and feelings in Spanish, seek a bilingual therapist.

Work with culture in mind

Tello and Lydiana Garcia both said that when clients are in therapy, they may not have the chance to discuss their cultural experiences, the intersections of identities, or how systemic marginalization affects mental health. To Tello, a mental health professor and researcher, who reflects the persistent view of the mental health field as “white, western … and very individualistic”.

“Identifying problems from an individualistic point of view without considering systems of oppression, the effects of colonialism, generational trauma and many [related issues] tends to blame the individual for their current situation and sometimes prescribe treatment that is not right for people of color, ”Garcia said.

Being culturally competent, Tello said, is taking the time to get to know the customer.

For example, she said, many Latinx clients have a strong spiritual or religious connection, so this is something that can be incorporated into the healing process.

Often, clinicians quickly identify the mental health problem and resolve it without understanding the client’s cultural values, she added.

She works a lot with first generation students and she said she emphasizes their strengths, such as their ability to navigate unfamiliar social spaces at school or at work.

Tello observed that many people who are first generation immigrants or the first in their family to go to college “have had these constant messages that we are inferior, different, or that something is different about us.” . His advice is to “recognize that you have cultural values ​​that others may not have and which move you forward in different areas of your life.”

Tello prefers the expression “cultural confirmation” to “cultural competence”. ‘Competent’ may mean you’ve reached a certain level of knowledge and skill, she explained, but a culturally assertive therapist recognizes that there is no one pattern when it comes to influences. cultural. Others prefer “culturally sensitive” or “culturally sensitive”.

Such therapists take a wider range of factors into account – including socioeconomic status, generation, or LGBTQ identity – and raise these topics in discussions with their clients.

Mental health directories

Not everyone will have the means to seek out a culturally competent therapist, said Perez, but there are options. High school students, she said, can contact a school counselor or ask a teacher to help them identify appropriate mental health help. Colleges have mental health centers on campus, and local clinics provide mental health services.
Another option is to ask therapists in private practice or at nonprofit clinics if they offer therapy sessions at a “sliding scale” price. This means that the charge for the service is based on a person’s ability to pay. Therapists at the Latinx Therapists Action Network are committed to providing mental health services to those in need on a sliding scale for up to 12 sessions. Other directories will allow you to search for therapists who offer decreasing prices.


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