Latino Voices

Chicago Organizations Look to Expand Mental Health Services, Diversify Available Therapists

Chicago Organizations Look to Expand Mental Health Services, Diversify Available Therapists

This story was produced in partnership with students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and WTTW News.

By: Elisabeth Betts, Rafaela Jinich and Antonia Mufarech

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Organizations across the city are working to provide more mental health services to Black and Latino Chicagoans.

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 fill that need, he logs on his computer with his mental health provider in Panama.

With Hispanics and Latinos comprising only 6% percent of the psychology workforce in the U.S., Attie has also seen his friends struggle.

“I think it’s better and more effective to find a therapist that really understands your culture," Attie said, "and finding something like that here in Chicago is probably not 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 trouble finding a therapist. Eventually, he became one.

“When we sought services, we did encounter that sensation that we weren’t finding services in our in our language and our culture,” Flores said.

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

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

“The term that’s used a lot is cultural humility, which it means you’re approaching a culture with this humility of: I may know some things about your culture, some things may resonate or connect with between us,” Flores said. “But, I, there’s a lot that 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 for 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 what that means is people who are in recovery, who have had either mental health issues, emotional issues or substance-use issues, and in that path through recovery, were 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, counselor and assistant professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, has experience as both a therapist and a Black woman seeking therapy.

“Look for someone that was competent was my approach at first,” Wanzer said. “I quickly realized that many of the people, even though they had degrees and were very competent on paper, wouldn’t be able to support me culturally.”

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

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

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

“All of us have the desire to want to be understood,” Chambers said. “So you need to start there by being curious and making sure that you’re listening. But most importantly, also to not be judgmental. That is something that is going to get in the way of being able to form a good connection with your client.”

As of 2020, only 4% of therapists in the U.S. were Black, and Chambers said the profession is disproportionately female. The shortage of Black male therapists means 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 men,” Chamber said. “So they want to be able to know they’re also going to be able to come in and not be judged, to be understood. And I think that becomes a real ... important piece to the therapy process.”

Attie said he 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 of or a reflection of someone really trying to be a better person,” Attie said. “Trying to be a better person, I think it’s the best, probably the most humane quality of a human being.”

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