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TCSPP fellow helps reduce stigma of mental illness with LatinX elders

The Center of Latino Mental Health at The Chicago School’s Chicago Campus partners with Las Moradas Apartments to share culturally responsive psychoeducation and mindfulness practices to LatinX elderly. Fellow Mariana Lopez talks about her experience.

In 1996, the Emory University School of Medicine studied non-urgent emergency room visits of Spanish-speaking patients to better understand the need for and effectiveness of interpreters in a medical setting. The study asked 530 native Spanish-speaking and English-speaking LatinX patients details about communication during their visit with their English speaking doctors. Thirty-four percent of visits in which both the patient’s English and the doctor’s Spanish were poor were reported as not having an interpreter present, and 84 percent of those 180 patients said one should have been used.

Unfortunately, more than 20 years later, the same language barriers between patients and doctors continue to be an issue, particularly within the mental health field.

Mariana Lopez, a Counseling Psychology graduate student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

“From a personal perspective, it’s hard for my parents to find Spanish-speaking doctors,” says Mariana Lopez, a Counseling Psychology graduate student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “There’s a great need for Spanish-speaking counselors to work with the community, which is something that motivates me to go into this field.”

With a waiting list of up to eight months to see a counselor in Chicago’s Spanish-speaking communities, Lopez says she is looking forward to closing that gap, as she’s fluent in both English and Spanish.

Lopez received a TCSPP fellowship in spring 2017 to work with partner site Las Moradas Apartments in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. At the apartments, she leads a mindfulness and psychoeducational program that focuses on stress reduction and an overall sense of well-being for the lower-income LatinX elderly population.

The unnamed program, simply called “El Grupo de Meditación” (the meditation group), was initially a team project involving another fellow and TCSPP’s Center of Latino Mental Health.The other fellow has since graduated, but Lopez made the decision to keep going.

“I continued the work, and in continuing it I’ve been refining it to figure out how to make something like this more accessible and understandable and culturally responsive to the needs of a very specific community,” Lopez says. “Most of the practices in mental health, including the application of meditation techniques in the U.S., have been developed based on studies of white culture.”

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Lopez plans to  take those same practices and techniques to find commonalities within the Latino culture. She hopes to make them more suited to the people she works with.

“Meditation and some of these eastern healing practices have a lot in common with the indigenous beliefs of spirituality and nature,” Lopez says.

Since prayer is a very important part of this specific culture, she is able to draw parallels between meditation and praying, which makes the practice more comfortable.

And comfort, Lopez says, is the main goal.

“We want this to be an outlet in which the Latino community–specifically its elderly members–has the chance to talk about their own feelings, especially when it comes to the effects of the current political climate­, which can trigger past traumas.”

Reducing mental illness stigma the roundabout way

Referring to President Donald Trump’s decision to give 2,500 Nicaraguans with provisional residency 14 months to leave the U.S., and the decision to not renew the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Lopez says the Latino community likely feels as if it’s under constant attack.”

While there are no TPS recipients in her program, Lopez says she does work with some people who face other obstacles they view as attacks on their community.

“There is a lack of support, and health care and other resources are being taken away, so we need to utilize our strengths,” she says. “And those strengths involve spirituality, healing, and connection.”

Through her work in the program, Lopez has noticed a growing need for that connection in the community’s older generation.

LatinX elders, especially first-generation immigrants, are in a situation that they haven’t been in before. Instead of being near their own family members, they’re living in assisted living homes or seeing their children once a month. Feelings of loneliness and isolation have become a major factor.”

Mariana Lopez

However, the stigma of mental illness and lack of access to culturally responsive care within the Latino community can lead some to not seeking help for their loneliness.  Lopez is trying to find a constructive alternative around their hesitation and nontraditional methods to bring support to the community.

“Counseling is a Western practice,” Lopez says. “However, talking to a healer or a priest about hardships has always been common practice. For the elderly LatinX group I work with, we choose a gentle way to talk about different things that they’re experiencing without them feeling like they’re talking to a psychiatrist. They may just need an ear to listen to their concerns. Without an outlet, this population could end up with a lot of pain. Mental illnesses can sometimes manifest as body pain, including heart disease.”

Lopez also practices Reiki, a Japanese technique used for stress reduction and relaxation that promotes healing, and pranayama, specialized breathing practices with the group, to regulate the nervous system.

“The more oxygen we have in our body, the more we’re going to heal, respond to treatments, and reduce our stress and anxiety,” Lopez says of the practices. “The coordinator for Las Moradas Apartments recognized that some of the residents were manifesting symptoms of depression. These activities integrate psycho-education and relaxation techniques for overall well-being.”

This work has become a labor of love for Lopez. Setting out to help others find comfort in making connections, she didn’t anticipate the comfort those connections would also give her. Working with older members of the Latino community has filled a familial hole she’s had since she can remember. Her own grandparents lived in Mexico and were unable to travel.

“I didn’t have grandparents growing up due to my family’s immigration history, and that was something that I always wanted and craved,” Lopez says. “In the Latino community, respect for our elders is something that’s very important. This is my way of having those elders in my life and continuing to follow the lead of my mother and people in my culture like her who love and respect those who came before them.”

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Shamontiel L. Vaughn joined TCS Education System’s Marketing Department as the Editorial Writer in February 2017. She has previously worked in digital media with the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender, CBS Chicago, and Sun Times Network.

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