Chicago organizations seek to expand mental health services, diversify available therapists | Latin entries | Chicago News

This story was produced in collaboration with students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and WTTW News.

By: Elisabeth Betts, Rafaela Jinich and Antonia Mufarech

Organizations across the city are working to provide more mental health services to Chicago’s Black and Latino people.

Part of that effort involves growing a more diverse pool of therapists.

Northwestern University sophomore Moises Attie struggled to find a Latino therapist in Chicago. To meet that need, he logs into his computer with his mental health provider in Panama.

With Hispanics and Latinos making up just 6 percent of the psych workforce in the United States, Attie has seen his friends struggle as well.

“I think it’s best and most effective to find a therapist who really understands your culture,” Attie said, “and finding something like that here in Chicago probably isn’t the same as finding a therapist back home.”

Nestor Flores, director of behavioral health initiatives at Pilsen Wellness Center, said that after a family tragedy, he had a hard time finding a therapist. Eventually, he became one.

“When we searched for services, we encountered the feeling that we weren’t finding services in our language and culture,” Flores said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that only 35% of Hispanic/Latino adults with mental health problems receive annual care compared to the national average of 46%.

Flores said that in addition to having a therapist with a similar background, it’s important to find one who is willing to learn.

“The term that gets used a lot is cultural humility, which means you’re approaching a culture with this humility of: I might know some things about your culture, some things might resonate or connect with each other,” Flores said. “But, me, there are many things I won’t know.”

The Pilsen Wellness Center works with a state-funded crisis program connected to 988, the national suicide hotline. The center provides help to those experiencing emergencies and is training people who have experienced mental health crises to become therapists.

“There’s this mandate to hire people with lived experience,” Flores said. “And that means that people who are in recovery, who have had mental health issues or emotional issues or substance use issues, and in that journey through recovery, have been able, because of their lived experience, to engage the person in a crisis and share that lived experience.

The center provides services for patients who want a no-strings-attached therapy session and are experiencing a mental health challenge.

Veronica Wanzer, a consultant and assistant professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, has experience both as a therapist and as a Black woman seeking therapy.

“Looking for someone who was competent was my approach in the beginning,” Wanzer said. “I immediately understood that many people, even if they were graduates and very competent on paper, would not be able to support me culturally”.

Wanzer said she believes in the importance of having a therapist with a similar background.

“My advisor is now also an African-American woman,” Wanzer said, “and she also aligns with a lot of my identities or diversity variables.”

While not the same as a therapy session, many organizations are now promoting technology as a way to make mental health topics more accessible.

Dr. Anthony Chambers, academic director and director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at the Family Institute of Northwestern University, said it’s important to understand each patient’s needs.

“We all have a desire to want to be understood,” Chambers said. “So you have to start there, by being curious and making sure you listen. But above all, also not to judge. This is something that will hinder your ability to make a good connection with your customer.

In 2020, just 4 percent of therapists in the United States were black, and Chambers said the profession is disproportionately female. The shortage of Black male therapists means that many Black men who want a therapist who looks like them may not see one at all.

“Men, period, struggle with vulnerability, especially, I would say, black people,” Chamber said. “So they want to be able to know that they will also be able to step in and not be judged, to be understood. And I think that becomes a really…important piece of the therapeutic process.”

Attie said she has stopped looking for a therapist in the Chicago area and will continue with services virtually with a mental health provider in Latin America.

“Therapy is a sign of strength and a sign or reflection of someone really trying to be a better person,” Attie said. “Trying to be a better person, I think that’s the best, probably the most human quality of a human being.”

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