Therapy for the Latinx Community: Unique Challenges and Approaches - Humantold

Therapy for the Latinx Community: Unique Challenges and Approaches

Talia Akerman, LMHC October 16, 2023

The vast Latinx community is one built on resilience, strength, power, and hope, yet one that emerges stronger with the proper care.

The Latinx community is anything but a monolith. We are an incredibly diverse set of people comprised of different religions, races, belief systems, and customs. Our culture is rich with history and customs that have come to embody and characterize our community. Nonetheless, they have provided some unique challenges when it comes to psychotherapy. In its original iteration, therapy was not created to support the needs of diverse people. Therapy has the power to be a beautiful, wonderful healing practice. However, it is necessary to make adaptations that take the needs and customs of different communities into account. Latinx people do not at all fit the mold created by White European men, nor should they have to in order to heal. 

Given that White European men designed the original concept and practice of psychotherapy, it had the tendency to “promote self-reliance as a healing objective” (Arredondo et al., 2014).  This is due in part to the fact that self-reliance is seen as healthy and preferred in individualistic cultures. This is in direct opposition to the nature of collectivistic cultures that most Latinx people belong to. A person who only functioned as an autonomous being in a collectivist society wouldn’t at all be emblematic of a healed person in their own community. 

Due to systemic failures that make accessing higher education difficult and near impossible for some, as well as social inequities that prevent people from being able to pursue jobs in community-oriented settings, we have a severe shortage of bilingual and/or Latinx counselors. This creates challenges for those seeking therapy who aren’t fluent in English (friendly reminder that the United States does not have an official language!) and even those who would simply prefer a provider that understood the nuanced expressions that only make sense in their native tongue. This problem becomes even more complicated when we consider the fact that traumas should be healed in the language in which they occurred, due to how they are processed in the brain (Arredondo et al., 2014).  

The Latinx community also tends to have a hierarchical nature in its relationships. Children are taught to always “respetar a los mayores.” The older, the wiser, and thus the more respect earned. Authority figures are to be respected and not to be challenged. Beyond the challenges this may create for the client in terms of managing distress in their personal life, this hierarchical structure can also be challenged in the counseling room, say if we have a young female counselor treating an older male client. Customs such as machismo are turned on their head and suddenly vulnerability becomes even more difficult for the male client in this scenario. Furthermore, it is customary to keep private matters within the family and not spread it to others. Mental health and any struggles with it are absolutely considered to fall under the category of private matters, adding even more intensity to the flip of the hierarchical structures and the challenges for Latinx individuals to open up about their experiences.

Despite these unique challenges to counseling Latinx people, there are approaches therapists can take when practicing therapy with this community. First and foremost, objectives for healing should be designed in a culturally competent manner that is syntonic with the cultural customs of the client. These unique approaches can be used as early as the second the therapist goes to greet the client at the door. The therapist can platicar or engage in small talk with the client, which may even last for the first 5-10 minutes of the session. This is essential to providing a healing space with Latinos as it is what allows them to open up, feel comfortable, and develop a sense of personalismo or personalism with their provider. These 5-10 minutes are crucial in putting the client at ease and repairing the trust that has been broken by the healthcare community’s treatment of minorities. 

Weaving dichos or proverbs and other Latinx popular wisdom into therapy is another unique approach (Arrendonde et al., 2014). Clients might come in saying something such as “my abuela  always said, “no hay mal que por bien no venga.” This proverb means that there is no bad that isn’t followed by some good. It helps instill hope and creates meaning out of suffering, something essential to healing. Therapists can weave this dicho (or any other one the client mentions) into their work together. They can prompt the client to discuss what dichos apply to a given situation or ask them which ones they heard growing up. Therapists may also listen to the ones the client may even bring up candidly (my childhood favorite was “no todo en la vida es color de rosas”).

Unique approaches that address the language barrier include counselors asking clients to first express themselves in their native language and then again in English. Allowing the client to express themselves in Spanish or Portuguese (or any other language the Latinx community speaks)  allows the client to feel a sense of empowerment, something so vital in a community that has been severely mistreated at the hands of White supremacy and racism for decades. It also allows the client to have a moment to gather their thoughts and process their emotions. 

The vast Latinx community is one built on resilience, strength, power, and hope. Yet that strength can only come out with the proper care. “The purpose of therapy is to relieve discomfort and because psychological pain is cultural-bound,”  it is essential that sessions are set up in a way that invites that culture in and honors its norms (Arredondo et al., 2014).

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