Tag Archives: immigration

Working with Latina/os in counseling

By Jacqueline Michelle Barthelemy June 20, 2017

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2015, Latina/os made up approximately 56.5 million of the total U.S. population, making them the largest ethnic or racial minority in the country. The Latina/o population is projected to grow to 120 million by the year 2060.

The question on many counselors’ minds is, how can we work better with our Latina/o clients? With the growing number of Latina/os in the U.S., it is likely we will work with these clients at some point as counselors, and it is our professional obligation to be prepared.

Working with clients in general can be a new learning experience, especially if their cultural background is different from our own. Many master’s programs require counseling students to take a multicultural course to prepare to work with clients of different backgrounds. But textbooks can provide only so much general knowledge. How are counselors supposed to learn how to work with different cultures if they are reduced to a mere chapter in a textbook for a one-semester course?

As someone whose background is Latina, my upbringing has prepared me to better serve people who share my cultural background. Nevertheless, my experiences have made me aware of further areas of growth in serving my clients (for instance, my lack of Spanish fluency is a hindrance).

In my current position, I work with clients and their families to get them more comfortable with the idea of counseling. It is sometimes difficult when working with Latina/o clients because there are so many challenges that bring them to counseling, or there is the stigma of counseling that turns them off to it altogether. If it is their first time going to counseling, their first impression of you, as the counselor, may color all future experiences with the counselors they may see. It is our duty to make clients feel comfortable and let them know that their concerns and goals are a part of the counseling process. Ultimately, clients set the tone for counseling.

 

Traditional Latina/o upbringings

In the Latina/o culture, family comes first (after God); the first relationship you have is the one with your family. Traditional Latina/o families are brought up being very close to their immediate and even extended family members, where everyone cares about everyone. Elders are highly regarded, and children, regardless of age, respect their parents.

Most families live in multigenerational households that include parents, siblings and grandparents. Sometimes extended family members may also reside in the home at one point or another. So when working with these clients, it is best to remember that family plays a vital role in their everyday lives.

When working with the whole family, it may appear that the family is unresponsive to the counseling process. Counselors should be as patient as possible, however, because family members may be waiting for their head of household (typically the male) to start and lead the conversation. The key is to treat and work with the family as a unit because that is how they might live their life traditionally. Family support is everything to Latina/os.

The Latina/o culture has many rich traditions that are passed down generationally. An example is the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, celebrated Nov. 1-2), during which families gather to pay respect for their loved ones. Often they build altars in their homes or at graves, where they place flowers, pan de muerto (bread of the dead, which is sweetened bread eaten the day of or the week leading up to the holiday as a sign of respect to the departed), pictures and the favorite food of their loved ones. Some say small prayers or retell stories of their dearly departed.

Knowing about this while counseling a family can be very beneficial, especially for those who are grieving. Understanding some of their traditions can help to build trust, connect with these clients and strengthen the counseling relationships. If you are counseling a Latina/o family or client who is grieving, talking about or suggesting the altar can help with the process. However, be sure to remember the origins of the family or client you are working with because different cultures in the Latina/o diaspora maintain different traditions.

Most Latina/os’ identities are strongly rooted in being members of specific groups. For example, if the client you are working with is from Guanajuato, Mexico, she or he will most likely take pride in being from that particular state in Mexico. As counselors, we should always ask clients where they are from to get a better understanding of who they are as individuals. Counselors should also be aware that having this sense of pride can cause conflicts in characterization of identity with other members of Latina/o groups.

Faith in one’s religion also plays a very important role in the lives of Latina/o clients. Religion can set the tone for the family as a whole — the tone being that God comes first, the family trusts in Him, they live their lives according to the Scriptures, and they are good and honest people. Many Latina/o clients have makeshift altars with religious artifacts in their homes where they pray the rosary daily (a rosary is a string of beads; some say a prayer per bead as a way to be closer to God or a saint). When counseling these clients, it is best to remember how important their faith is and how much of an impact it has on their lives and the decisions they make daily.

 

Stigmas of counseling in the Latina/o community

I grew up with the best of both worlds — a mixture of traditions blended with new possibilities. Sometimes those ideas conflicted with one another, however.

My grandparents stressed that if I had issues or problems, that I should share them only with my family and no one else. Our reputation and how the world perceived us was important. To share something too personal with strangers or people outside of the family could change people’s views of me, potentially leading to getting overlooked and judged. On the other hand, my mother told me that people would judge me regardless of what I shared, so I might as well be my most authentic self.

I had an amazing support system in my mother and grandparents. They listened to me and allowed me to feel what I felt, regardless of the situation. My family kept me grounded and later led me to my career path as a counselor. I realized that not everyone was as fortunate as I was to have this incredible family support team to believe in them unconditionally.

When I told my mother about my decision to become a counselor, she was supportive and understood what a counselor was. However, my grandparents had a hard time understanding my decision to go back for more schooling. The first thing they asked was, “¿Qué es un consejera?” (What’s a counselor?). I spent an hour trying to explain, but all they understood was that I was going back to school, so I was probably doing something with teaching (because my bachelor’s was in education).

My grandparents believed in getting an education, but they were confused about why I would want to go back to school again. Had I not done enough the first time around? Why was I delaying working full time? My grandparents, like many traditional Latina/os, did not fully understand what counseling was or why someone would utilize the service. They wondered why you would need to tell your problems to someone else when you have family or could pray about your problems.

I knew that as a counselor, I could be a part of a support system for others and help them reach their goals. When working with Latina/o clients, it is helpful to explain that our job as counselors is to be that support system for them, much like their own families. It is best to emphasize that you want to be able to assist them, offer resources and be another source for them to use in achieving their goals.

In the Latina/o culture, counseling is stigmatized. Many families are brought up not to “gossip” or talk about personal or family problems with strangers. Aside from that, most families do not have a clear understanding of what counseling is. Families stress not talking to others about their issues because they know that people can gossip. For some of these families and clients, their reputations are all that they have, and if they are talked about badly, they take it to heart.

It is our job as counselors to educate others about what counseling is and how the counseling process works. It is best to emphasize confidentiality and the rules that are in place to protect clients, as well as the only times when confidentiality needs to be broken. Having Latina/o clients understand the counseling process and what it entails can make all the difference in building good rapport.

The risk is high for any individual who is an undocumented immigrant. The resources available to these individuals are limited, and they have fewer opportunities to vocalize their needs for fear of being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Clients and potential clients who are Latina/o may be tight-lipped because they do not fully understand where information shared during counseling could end up. Again, I recommend carefully explaining what counseling and confidentiality are.

If the client or family members are working, their work environments may be less than ideal. They may be underpaid or get paid under the table (paid in cash only), and their superiors may subject them to harsh work conditions (for instance, overworking them). Latina/os who are undocumented immigrants live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether today is the day they are going to be deported. Because of this uncertainty, they sometimes do not feel comfortable sharing any personal information with people who are not family. These clients need to know that they can trust the counselor. Counselors need to reassure clients that their offices are safe spaces and what they share will remain confidential.

Some Latina/os choose not to share with family that they are seeking mental health counseling for fear of being judged negatively. When encountering clients who have no family support, it is best to address those concerns and explore other people (both outside and inside the family) they can count on for support.

As a school counselor, I have worked with Latina/o students, and to do so, one of the parents must give consent. The majority of the permission slips come back from the mothers, not the fathers. Typically, it is the mother who is more open to her child receiving counseling services, often on the condition that the father remains in the dark about the services the child receives. One time, I had to stop seeing a student when the father found out the student was receiving counseling services. The father came to the school livid. He gave his verbal and written consent to stop counseling services, and I had to oblige. It was a difficult situation because the student benefited from counseling, and I tried to get the father to see that. Ultimately, however, I had to honor the wishes of the parents and stop counseling services.

Another stigma of counseling with Latina/os is labeling in the educational setting. Many families worry about labels and how they can potentially negatively affect their child. Sometimes these labels can even lead parents to believe something is wrong with the child.

As counselors, it is our job to destigmatize labels and show that labeling is not always negative. When students are struggling academically in school, teachers, school counselors and other staff work together to figure out what is preventing them from succeeding academically. All the necessary avenues are taken (e.g., teacher works on modifying classwork and contacts parents for extra support) before determining a student needs an evaluation to determine if he or she has a learning disability.

When students need Individual Education Programs (IEPs), families are sometimes hesitant to support such plans. They worry what it might potentially mean for their child regarding being labeled. But in these cases, labels can help students receive the necessary services to achieve their academic goals. Remind parents that they are encouraged to be as involved as possible in the IEP process, the process can take a long time to complete (sometimes as long as six months) and that counselors can serve as advocates to assist them with the process.

 

Multigenerational conflicts

Even with what is taught in multicultural classes, not every family adheres to what you assume about Latina/os. As the years progress, younger generational Latina/os are abandoning some traditional norms. They are coming to be their own person and wanting to incorporate new traditions with the ones already established within the family.

An example of this is young Latinas not conforming to the expected gender norms of their culture. Most young Latinas who are raised in traditional families grow up learning that a wife’s place is in the home and taking care of the family, whereas a husband’s role is to provide for that family. Some Latinas are shattering these gender norms and wanting more for their life, such as going to college and putting off marriage and children. This can cause tension within the family unit.

For example, my mother broke barriers in her own family. When she was growing up, it was basically expected that she would be a good person and a future wife. My mother put off marriage and having a child and dedicated her time to figuring out her future. Her parents were not as supportive as she would have liked, and she left home (something that was not expected of young single Latinas).

My mother decided she wanted to go into the medical field, but she did not have her father’s support. Her mother would check on her and take her to night classes without her father knowing. The sneaking around her mother did went on for the duration of the time my mother was in school. It was because of the barriers my mother broke that I have been afforded the life I have now.

As a counselor, you might work with these clients and their families to try to get them to see eye to eye on what traditions they want to continue to uphold. The goals for counseling would be to hopefully reach a healthy and happy balance where everyone in the family is understanding of the others’ opinions.

 

Language barriers

Many Latina/os want and need counseling services, but the language barrier sometimes prevents them from receiving these services. Bilingual counselors are in high demand to reach these families. If counselors can speak Spanish, the family or client may feel more comfortable speaking with them, helping to build good rapport. If you are not fluent in Spanish, there are steps you can take to bridge this language gap, including using digital apps or going to someone who can help you learn the language.

I am not fluent in Spanish, but I have some conversational ability, and this has been a tremendous asset in reaching out and talking with Latina/o clients. If Spanish is your clients’ first language, they may feel more comfortable speaking in their native tongue and may talk more freely about their concerns or what brought them to counseling.

On another note, just because someone speaks a language doesn’t mean they read it well, so be sensitive to literacy levels in a language. Also, just because clients look like they Spanish might be their first language, don’t assume that it is. For example, some Latina/os such as Brazilians speak Portuguese.

 

Breaking down the stigmatization of counseling

How do we get Latina/o clients in our doors if they are hesitant to speak with someone outside of their families? The proactive actions counselors can engage in to break down these barriers include getting familiar with and volunteering in the community. Start small and get acquainted with the community you are targeting. What kind of resources and services does the community offer? Talk and research with other individuals to see how you can have a presence.

While working, see what potential clients are seeking help with (child care, employment, etc.) and figure out where the clients can go to receive those services. Often information is available to help people, but they do not know where to look for it. Knowing where and in what direction to point a client can make all the difference.

Normalize counseling and curtail the stigma; counseling does not equate to being “crazy.” People utilize counseling services for various reasons. Try and provide real-world examples of people taking care of themselves. For instance, you might say, “If you go to see a doctor for a checkup, why wouldn’t you see a counselor for a mental health checkup?” Let potential clients know it is normal to feel overwhelmed. After all, they are only human.

Educate potential clients about the counseling profession. Tell them that your job is not to judge but to listen and work with them to alleviate their stress. Explain that you are there to help them; they decide the counseling process and the direction of counseling. Self-disclose (within reason) about some of your own related experiences with the Latina/o client. Let them know they are not alone in their struggle. Inform them that it is normal to feel stressed and that talking about those stressors can be therapeutic.

Seek others in the community who are working with the Latina/o population, such as doctors, priests and schools. Explain who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Contact local public and private schools to ask about volunteering and working with the school’s counselors to help develop a counseling curriculum. Again, after being seen, you will become a trusted face in the eyes of potential clients. Underfunded schools in particular may not even have a school counselor on staff and would likely welcome the extra support for their students.

Finally, when trying to reach potential clients, think about the community you are working in. Is it in a low socioeconomic area? Is there an issue with trying to afford mental health services? Lack of financial income and insurance are among the reasons that some Latina/os do not seek mental health services. Think about offering pro bono counseling to make quality counseling available to all, regardless of insurance or income.

These clients may be working multiple jobs and face time constraints with raising a family. If they are without a vehicle, transportation to see a counselor may pose an obstacle as well. Counselors might think about being able to point these clients toward quality child care or offering bus passes to help with transportation to and from sessions.

 

Conclusion

Whatever brings Latina/os to counseling, it is important that we do our best to help in whatever way we can. Their first interaction with a counselor may lead them to form an assumption about all counselors moving forward. With the increase in population of Latina/os in the U.S., counselors have to be prepared to better serve these clients and break the stigma of counseling. Counselors must remember to be nonjudgmental and take an active interest in what their clients tell them about their backgrounds. Figure out how to work with others, and see how you can be a positive force in the community you are servicing.

Doing research about the client’s background can help strengthen the rapport between you and show the client that you are taking an interest in what she or he tells you. To work with this community, it would be best to take Spanish-language classes and read as much as you can about the Latina/o culture. Books and classes can certainly help, but the best way to truly serve these families and clients is through community engagement and becoming familiar with their cultural practices.

 

****

 

Jacqueline Michelle Barthelemy is a fourth-year school counselor. She received her master’s in counseling from Saint Xavier University and is currently a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact her at jacqueline.m.barthelemy@gmail.com.

 

****

 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Teaching counselor education curriculum in a ‘new reality’

By Suzanne A. Whitehead May 19, 2017

I love my job, my calling, as a counselor educator, and I take my role and passion as a graduate student advocate, public innovator and social justice change agent to heart every single day. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

His words are my mantra in life. Each one of us touches the hearts of so many others and, thus, the very future.

But teaching in these uncertain, turbulent times has been challenging to say the least. A powerful, yet almost silent and unspoken subtle change has occurred in my classrooms. It almost feels like a gray mist or cloud that is not seen but clearly felt.

I have never tried to be political with my students or to discuss politics in the classes that I teach. I don’t believe in it. Just because a professor has a “captive audience” in a class and CAN speak his or her mind doesn’t mean that one should. I don’t shy away from state, national or global issues because they are often pertinent to the material we discuss. Still, I don’t offer my own political opinion on these issues, mostly out of respect, but also because I feel it’s the right thing to do.

I care a great deal about my students. I can see the concern and worry in their eyes. They are more unsettled than normal, and the mood is palpable. Approximately 80 percent of my students are Hispanic and bilingual. They share an immense pride in their heritage, culture and family systems. I honor their commitment to their communities, their livelihoods and this country that they dearly love.

My students bring in reports of their own counselees in schools and agencies who share stories of intense fear, anxiety and pain at the idea that they, or their parents, could be deported. We have a lot of “Dreamer” students (children of undocumented immigrants) at my university and many of these children and families in our surrounding communities. Their understandable angst is powerful, heart-wrenching and compelling.

 

Teaching in these challenging times

And now we are asked to continue to teach our students as though nothing has changed in our world. No matter how one voted (or chose not to vote) in our nation’s most recent election, one thing is for certain: It has been an incredibly acrimonious, divisive and challenging time for our entire country. I have my opinions, but they are not for me to share them with my students. Yet they share theirs, every day. They have to because it affects their lives, their families and the clients they serve.

Other counselor educators who are struggling with these same issues may be wondering: How do we respond in a caring, empathic, yet ambiguous, way and not take sides?

The danger in “taking sides” is that even if I find great personal solace in doing so, I may also inadvertently destroy a student’s belief that each person has a right to free speech and to believe as he or she sees fit. In my bully pulpit ramblings, I could possibly (even if unintentionally) insult or even scar a student who may hold vastly different opinions from my own. That would be inexcusable. That serves no one except for my own selfish gain.

 

What we can do

It tugs at my heartstrings, but the only conclusion I can see is to treat this situation as a counselor would with any client. We must be confident, genuine, caring and willing to listen. We need to share that we understand students’ (and their clients’) fears and concerns. We express great empathy for what they are experiencing and model, summarize and validate their honest emotions, using an overall person-centered approach from Carl Rogers.

This isn’t always easy with a large number of students on one’s caseload. I never want to appear disingenuous. I just keep telling them, and myself, that their feelings, and those of their clients, are real, significant and truly matter. I will not judge; that is not my purpose as an educator. And I will not just gloss over everything with the proverbial, “It will all be just fine” message, to assuage their fears and my own discomfort.

All we can do is let them know how much we care and then use our own therapeutic orientations that we hold dear to help them and their clients. For example, in using a brief solution-focused therapeutic approach (Steve de Shazer), they can explore their options and what they believe IS within their power to influence, and develop effective ways to cope and move forward. These are all productive ways of handling and making sense of difficult times. The basic tenets of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy seem useful here as well — finding purpose and meaning, even within one’s suffering and turmoil, and a reason to keep going.

 

Wellness for counselor educators

It is also more evident than ever that we as counselor educators need to take the time for wellness and coping strategies for our own mental well-being. It is one thing to conduct site visits and observations to see each of my students working with children, adolescents and adults. I too hear their stories firsthand and feel great empathy for their situations. But now, we also hear the same concerns from our students in our classes, and it is hard not to feel their pain intensely.

I reach out to my professional colleagues for feedback and interaction. I value the unwavering support of my family and friends and cherish their input now more than ever. And I have become intensely aware of where my own “head” is at — and my emotions — and utilize my coping strategies to the fullest. I consciously try to “check my ego and attitude” at the door before I step into the classroom and hold fast to the belief that I am here to instruct, teach, lead and inspire. The American Counseling Association’s values and code of ethical conduct are bedrocks of sanity to hold dear.

I am guessing that things will continue to be tricky for many of us in the coming months and years. As educators, we need to help each other through these very different times and circumstances. Knowing that the counseling profession is strong, and that our colleagues are always there for us, brings great comfort and resoluteness. My fervent hope is that it brings the same to each of you.

“Carpe diem,” dear colleagues.

 

 

****

 

Suzanne A. Whitehead is a licensed mental health counselor and assistant professor of counselor education at California State University, Stanislaus. Contact her at sawhitehead7@gmail.com or swhitehead1@csustan.edu.

 

****

 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Mental health implications of undocumented immigrant status

By Laura M. Gonzalez and Nathaniel N. Ivers April 6, 2017

The phrase undocumented immigrant, or its less charitable counterpart, illegal alien, tends to cause a stir in the media. The focus is on the paperwork, the lack of permission or legal status to be in the United States. However, for counselors to work effectively with this population, it is helpful to spend some time considering the second part of that phrase: immigrant.

For a person to decide to leave all that is known, familiar and comforting behind, he or she is likely in a state of considerable duress. Among the stressors that push immigrants to leave their homes are grinding poverty and starvation, threatened or actual violence, extortion from gangs, ethnic or religious discrimination and lack of hope that their situation will improve. Whether their journey involves hiding in a container in a cargo ship, clinging to the top of a moving train or walking through difficult terrain, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Such a journey can last for months and be extremely perilous.

A person who decides to undertake such a journey as the “best available option” is already living in a state of physical, mental and emotional deprivation. We encourage counselors to consider the challenges posed by the pervasive stressors present in the person’s home country, the possible trauma encountered on the journey and the difficulty of living in the shadows in a new land where so much is strange and unfamiliar.

We have several goals with this article. We wish to clarify terminology and definitions to generate an accurate understanding of this population, describe some of the challenges facing families with undocumented members in the United States, outline some commonly occurring mental health issues among undocumented immigrants and provide counselors with some resources and ideas about how to respond to these clients. In addition to building individual capacity to respond among counselors, we hope to inspire advocates in our profession to consider systems-level responses or ways we can promote more equitable access to the support systems that undocumented immigrants often need. We are focusing on the undocumented portion of the immigrant population because of the severity of their needs and the relative scarcity of resources to meet those needs.

In terms of definitions, immigrants are people who leave their home country to live (temporarily or permanently) in a host country. They differ from refugees, which are defined as individuals fleeing persecution, war or natural disaster. The United Nations classifies refugees as a protected group, and if a host country offers these individuals asylum, it comes with automatic legal status. Immigrants can apply to receive temporary legal status based on a special function (such as a work visa or student visa), or they may become eligible for residency through a qualified family member who is a U.S. citizen. However, there are caps on each category (i.e., not every person who wishes to come to the U.S. to work or study may do so). Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (more commonly known as DACA) is a temporary permission to work that does not provide true legal standing in the U.S., and it can potentially be revoked by executive action.

It is important to have a trusted source for accurate information about immigration, especially when so much inaccurate information abounds in other public sources. In particular, counselors may wish to become familiar with eligibility for health and human services for undocumented immigrants. A helpful source for this information is the National Immigration Law Center website (nilc.org), which provides details about eligibility for health care services, education, workers’ rights, driver’s licenses, economic support programs and so on.

It also is important for counselors to be aware that differences exist between federal and state immigration policies and practices. Some states have created restrictive laws to govern activities such as enrolling an undocumented child in school, presenting for services in an emergency room and applying for a driver’s license. Thus, it is incumbent upon counselors to understand the climate and laws within their states and local communities. The current policy climate is changing rapidly, so staying up to date is essential.

Common challenges

Each immigrant family with at least one undocumented member is unique, but some typical challenges do exist. For adult immigrants who are undocumented, there are daily concerns about detection by the authorities, potential deportation and separation from other family members. Even an act as simple as driving to the grocery store can be perilous without a driver’s license, so undocumented immigrants may adopt the mantra “trust no one” and try to live in the shadows, undetected. The newest guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security (dhs.gov/executive-orders-protecting-homeland) include a broader definition of priorities for deportation. This change has generated enormous fear in the immigrant community.

Many undocumented immigrants must work jobs in which they are paid as part of the underground economy. Thus, they are not able to speak out against unsafe workplace conditions or unfair or discriminatory practices for fear of retribution. These jobs often pay poverty-level wages and involve hard manual labor. Some undocumented immigrants work more than one job to make ends meet.

Adults who are undocumented are also unlikely to have access to needed services such as health, legal, educational and other social support services, so they have unmet needs in terms of physical and mental health. In addition, it is common for these adults to have experienced some form of trauma — physical or sexual assault, robbery, threats, extortion, bearing witness to murder — during their journey to the U.S., so there is an accumulation of stressors that can become quite profound.

Youth living in a family with at least one undocumented member experience some of the same stressors — concerns about deportation of a family member, poverty, lack of services, etc. But some of their concerns are different. In most cases, these youth will have access to basic K-12 education, so they often acculturate to U.S. language and culture norms more quickly than do their parents. This can be difficult in the early phases of adjustment, but it does bring some benefit in terms of language proficiency, educational opportunity and socialization.

However, when their friends start moving through rites of passage such as getting a driver’s license, landing a first job or applying to college, youth who are undocumented or who have an undocumented parent have a strikingly divergent experience. Some are already aware of their legal status, but other youth first learn about their lack of documentation when they ask their parents to assist with these normative tasks. At this point, some youth become disillusioned and depressed, believing that all of their dreams and aspirations are now beyond their reach. Without a socially sanctioned way to participate in society, these youth may become involved in maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., gang involvement, substance abuse). Other undocumented youth become more determined and start fighting to achieve their goals, even if they have to create new systems outside of the defined legal structures.

In both cases, it is unlikely that their parents will be able to provide much assistance, so undocumented youth will almost always need advocates or champions from outside of their group to assist them. It is risky to identify oneself as undocumented in today’s hostile political climate, so finding an advocate is not a straightforward process. Adults who are familiar with the signs and signals that a youth (or a youth’s family member) may be undocumented — for example, not driving, not applying to college even with a good academic record, having many absences from school that are not typical — may find ways to reach out and indirectly inquire about the youth’s circumstances or offer resources. Counselors might wish to review websites such as the Department of Education’s Resource Guide: Supporting Undocumented Youth (www2.ed.gov/about/overview/focus/supporting-undocumented-youth.pdf) and the UCLA clearinghouse of resources on undocumented youth (smhp.psych.ucla.edu/qf/undoc.html).

Using ecological systems theory 

It is important that counselors understand the singular environmental factors and societal barriers that have the potential to affect the development and mental health of undocumented youth and families. This understanding can prepare counselors to apply more effective strategies when working with undocumented clients or families.

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory may be a particularly helpful tool for counselors in this regard. Bronfenbrenner’s theory describes human development in terms of interactions between individuals’ personal characteristics and their environmental systems. The five environmental systems are the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem and chronosystem.

The microsystem is the most immediate environment in which an individual interacts. For children, microsystems commonly consist of a small group of people, such as parents, siblings, schoolteachers, friends and classmates. The mesosystem is the interaction between microsystems, such as the communications between parents and teachers.

The exosystem is outside of one’s direct interaction but still has the potential to impact one’s mental health and development because it directly influences members of one’s microsystem. This might include a parent’s relationship with his or her boss or co-workers, or a teacher’s relationship with his or her principal. A common example of the influence of the exosystem on someone is that of a parent who feels unappreciated and disrespected at work and then displaces that anger and frustration onto his or her children.

The macrosystem is the largest ecological system. It includes cultural values and beliefs, and political and economic systems. The chronosystem, which includes constancy and change, reflects the influence of time on one’s development.

Undocumented immigrant status can influence all aspects of a person’s ecological system. In the microsystem, immigration may affect the relationships among and between family members. The combination of fewer community and financial resources plus the need to stay obscure or in the shadows may reduce the number of microsystems that undocumented youth and families have. For example, documented youth may engage in more extracurricular activities than do undocumented youth. This expands the microsystems of documented youth to include additional people, such as teammates, music teachers and coaches.

Immigration, and particularly undocumented immigration, may also change traditionally microsystemic relationships into exosystemic relationships. For example, it is common for undocumented families to immigrate to the United States in waves, with a parent initially leaving children with extended family members. This can lead to parents becoming part of their children’s exosystem for a period of time. Later, when children are able to immigrate to the United States to reunite with their parents, the relationship rapidly shifts back to one that is microsystemic. These sudden shifts in interactions can require an adjustment period and strain the relationships between undocumented youth and their parents. Changes in microsystems can also occur as the result of other factors such as deportation.

Undocumented immigration may also influence the mesosystem, or interactions between microsystems, particularly in reference to the quality and frequency of such interactions. One example is the relationship between a child’s schoolteacher and parents. Language differences between parents and teachers can affect the strength of this relationship, which can in turn reduce the ability of undocumented parents to be fully involved in their child’s school. This can prove particularly challenging when difficult and complicated situations such as discrimination or bullying occur.

The indirect aspect of the exosystem may be particularly pronounced with undocumented youth and families. Parents who are trying to make ends meet but who are not legally allowed to work in the United States may work long hours at very low-paying jobs and experience exploitation, prejudice and discrimination. Parents who experience financial stress and fear of potential deportation may inadvertently displace their preoccupations onto their children in the form of irritation and frustration. This can negatively impact the mental health and development of these youth.

The macrosystem also may have a profound effect on mental health and development. In particular, marginalized groups such as undocumented youth and families are particularly vulnerable to economic and political trends. This is certainly true in reference to the legislation and execution of laws associated with undocumented immigration. As previously mentioned, undocumented youth who learn of their undocumented status and the barriers associated with that status in terms of securing education, employment, a driver’s license and so on may be particularly susceptible to feelings of despair, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety and fear.

Unique factors associated with the chronosystem also may be in play with individuals and families who are undocumented. In particular, the possibility of change, such as deportation, may constantly be on the minds of undocumented youth or members of their microsystems. Changes (or a lack thereof) in immigration policies and laws may also affect the mental health of undocumented individuals. For example, in 2010, Dreamers anxiously awaited the prospect of gaining citizenship through federal legislation (known as the Dream Act). However, this legislation was met with barriers and did not pass Congress. This was a huge blow to many who were leaning on this legislation for the prospect of stability, opportunities for education and careers, and other privileges of full citizenship.

More recently, political rhetoric and actions associated with securing the U.S. border and enforcing immigration laws more strictly have created a great deal of uncertainty and fear in undocumented immigrant communities.

Strategies for working with undocumented clients 

Counselors can do a number of things to help undocumented individuals and their families. With respect to the microsystem, counselors can provide a space for undocumented youth and families to vent their frustrations, fears, mistrust and sadness associated with their experiences of discrimination, exploitation and barriers. Helping parents to express their frustrations may reduce the chances of them displacing anger and frustration onto other members of the family unit. Counselors can also help parents problem-solve and cope with challenging aspects of their lives, such as dealing with disrespectful co-workers or prejudicial bosses. In addition, counselors can help parents prepare for worst-case scenarios, such as steps they could take in the event that one or both parents were detained or deported.

Concerning the mesosystem, counselors can help youth and families develop their relationships with other microsystems, such as teachers and other school personnel. In particular, it is important for counselors to help undocumented youth and parents brainstorm ways to respond to school personnel about school issues such as academic struggles, behavioral challenges, discrimination and bullying. With clients’ permission, counselors working with undocumented youth and families may also consider taking on an advocacy role with school systems, particularly when discrimination and unresolved bullying are occurring.

With respect to the macrosystem, counselors may consider advocating for changes in the law regarding illegal immigration. This may include advocating for pathways to citizenship, better access to community resources and so on. It also may take the form of advocating against movements or legislation that would be harmful to undocumented youth and their families.

Counselors can also help youth and families draw upon and cultivate resilience. This may take the form of helping clients to remember the struggles and obstacles they have already been through and rediscover the strengths they possess that have helped them navigate these trials.

Case study

The following is a brief case study of a counseling experience that one of the article authors had with an undocumented family. Specific names and circumstances have been changed to protect the family’s identity. Many of the details of this case are common experiences that undocumented families face.

****

Marcus, an undocumented immigrant who is 14 and speaks Spanish, was referred to you by the school social worker. Marcus attends the first session with his 45-year-old mother, Elizabeth, who also speaks Spanish and is undocumented. Elizabeth shares with you that she immigrated alone to the United States 10 years ago. Because of financial difficulties, she had to leave Marcus with her parents in her country of origin. A few months before this first session, Marcus was able to join his mother in the U.S. Elizabeth shares that Marcus refuses to call her “mom” and acts very standoffish toward her.

Marcus shares that he doesn’t know why he had to come to the United States. He says that he was happy in his country of origin and misses his friends, grandparents and cousins. He also says that he doesn’t like school, that English is difficult for him to learn and that students at the school pick on him. He says he can understand the names the other kids call him and the mean things they say. He doesn’t have enough command of English to fight back with his words, however, so he uses his fists. Marcus has used his fists to fend off verbal attacks a number of times and, on each occasion, he has been suspended from school.

****

In this case example, Marcus’ microsystem changed suddenly. He was uprooted from the only life he had known, where he had friends and close connections to extended family. Using Bronfenbrenner’s model as a reference, we see that Marcus was separated from his ecological system — a system in which he knew the explicit and implicit cultural beliefs, values and rules and interacted with people who looked like him and shared his language. His microsystem changed from that of friends, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins to that of his mother and a schoolteacher.

Furthermore, Marcus’ mother, who for many years had been part of his exosystem — someone who influenced his life indirectly but didn’t interact with him outside of an occasional phone call and letter — became his primary microsystem. Elizabeth, who missed her son dearly and felt guilty for not being there to raise him, wanted desperately to pick up where they had left off before she immigrated to the United States. Marcus was not able to reciprocate her feelings, which hurt Elizabeth deeply.

Although Elizabeth had lived in the United States for a decade, she had interacted primarily with other Spanish speakers and largely remained in the shadows to avoid detection. Therefore, she struggled to communicate with school personnel at Marcus’ school and did not know how to help her son deal with the bullying that he experienced.

The counselor should take into account a number of factors when conceptualizing and treating this family. Systemically, it is important to recognize the changes (chronosystem) that have occurred in the lives of both Elizabeth and Marcus and how they are adjusting to those changes. The counselor might help Elizabeth recognize the adjustments that Marcus is experiencing and assist her in developing realistic expectations regarding their relationship. It also would be beneficial to further assess her relationship and interactions with Marcus’ school (mesosystem) and co-construct strategies to help her figure out what is going on in school and how to advocate for her son. The counselor also might consider ways that he or she can advocate appropriately on behalf of the family.

The counselor also might assess Marcus’ exosystem by understanding the stressors that Elizabeth faces in her daily life. These include working multiple jobs, experiencing pressure from family members in her country of origin to help out financially and dealing with ongoing fears of deportation. If Elizabeth is facing a great deal of stress and anxiety, the counselor could take care to validate Elizabeth’s emotions and provide her with stress-reduction tools.

The counselor can work with Marcus to develop healthy strategies for dealing with the verbal abuse he reports experiencing at school. The counselor also might work to broaden Marcus’ microsystem by looking into community programs in which Marcus might be interested, including sports programs, after-school programs or a mentorship program.

Conclusion and resources

Seemingly insurmountable barriers exist for undocumented children and families, but counselors can take a number of steps to facilitate the mental health of these clients. It can be particularly helpful to conceptualize undocumented families’ circumstances from a systemic perspective, such as Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. It also is helpful to validate clients’ experiences while drawing upon their resources, including the resilience and skills they have used to overcome past trials and struggles.

Finally, it is important for counselors to be aware of the resources that exist to help undocumented families. The following resources will get you started.

In addition, we recommend the following books for those who wish to deepen their personal understanding of the narratives of undocumented immigrants:

  • Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother by Sonia Nazario
  • Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives compiled and edited by Peter Orner

 

****

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Laura M. Gonzalez is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, having received a Ph.D. in counselor education from North Carolina State University and an M.Ed. in college counseling from the University of Delaware. In addition, she has conducted research and outreach to the Latino immigrant community with the goal of enhancing educational access. Contact her at lmgonza2@uncg.edu.

Nathaniel N. Ivers is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. He received his master’s in counseling from Wake Forest University and a Ph.D. in counseling and counselor education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has published research and conceptual papers related to Latino immigrants and has provided counseling to the Spanish-speaking immigrant population in North Carolina. Contact him at iversnn@wfu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

****

 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling interns get firsthand exposure to immigrant experience

By Bethany Bray September 26, 2016

An innovative partnership in North Carolina is pairing counseling graduate students from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with clients of a free medical clinic nearby. Many of these clients are recent immigrants.

According to those involved with the effort, the partnership provides the student interns with a chance to hone their counseling skills while also offering them a firsthand lesson in advocacy and social justice issues.

The Bethesda Health Center (BHC) provides free primary care, diabetes and hypertension management, and health education for low-income and uninsured residents of Charlotte and the surrounding county. The UNC Charlotte counseling interns offer mental health care alongside these physical health services.

The partnership provides much-needed care to minority populations who are, statistically, the least likely to seek or access mental health services, says Daniel Gutierrez, an assistant professor of counseling at UNC Charlotte, as well as a licensed professional counselor, licensed mental health counselor and member of the American Counseling Association.

It has also provided counseling students with some valuable learning that transcends the typical textbook lessons, says Katherine Wilkin, an ACA member and clinical mental health counseling student at UNC Charlotte. Wilkin, who was born in Venezuela, is able to offer counseling to BHC clients in Spanish and English.

The experience has opened Wilkin’s eyes to the cultural factors that often increase risks for mental health struggles, including the stress of navigating a language barrier and acculturation to a new location.

“My experience at Bethesda Health Clinic has enriched my training and has strengthened my passion for providing mental health services to the Hispanic population in their native language of Spanish,” Wilkin says. “… This program exposes counselors and students to a diverse population with unique issues. The [U.S.’s] growing Hispanic population calls for mental health professionals to be sensitive and aware of the cultural considerations when working with this population.”

UNC Charlotte’s work at BHC was highlighted recently by National Public Radio (NPR). CT Online reached out to Gutierrez for a Q+A to find out more.

 

CT: In your own words, how does this program meet a need?

DG: Latinos are the fastest-growing and largest minority in the U.S., and they experience mental health disorders at the same rate — some argue at higher rates — as the majority culture. Yet, when compared to the majority culture, they are the least likely to access mental health treatment. They, on average, receive a lower quality of care and end up presenting with more severe symptoms.

There is no doubt that there is a great need for effective and accessible mental health care for this population. However, there are numerous barriers that keep Latinos from accessing mental health treatment, such as language difficulties, a lack of appropriately trained mental health workers, stigma and an overall difficulty trusting providers.

On the other hand, counselor educators everywhere preach the importance of teaching our students to work with underserved and vulnerable populations, but we don’t always have the opportunity to give our students quality learning experiences doing this work. This program meets two needs: a) it creates access to appropriate mental health services for an underserved population; and b) it creates a diverse and dynamic learning experience for our students.

 

What have you learned from this program?

I don’t think you have enough room [in this article] to describe what I’ve learned. I learned how complicated it is to set up a program like this. I learned the importance of doing work with the I_learnedcommunity and not just in the community. This program has also reaffirmed my belief that understanding people is more important than understanding illness.

 

 

Talk about the logistics of how this program came together. What did it take to get started?

First off, the real credit goes to people like Wendy Mateo, the executive director of the Bethesda Health Center. Before all the publicity from NPR, and with limited resources and under some very challenging circumstances, Wendy was wholeheartedly serving the Latino community by providing medical care and chronic health management to the low-income and uninsured immigrant families in Charlotte. She does an amazing job and is an inspiration to helpers everywhere.

When we met with Wendy, she expressed that although they were making considerable strides in improving the physical health of Latinos in Charlotte, there was a great need for mental health services for their patients. We quickly realized that serving at a clinic that helps the underserved in Charlotte would be an amazing opportunity for our counseling students, and that our counseling students could provide the services that Bethesda truly needed. So, we brought together a team of faculty from different departments and began conversations about building counseling capacity at this free clinic.

We began by first evaluating the mental health needs for the current patients. We conducted chart reviews, spoke with staff at Bethesda and began to develop an understanding of what kind of mental health needs they were facing. We then had a series of meetings evaluating space needs; developing the right type of forms; discussing issues related to supervision, ethics, confidentiality, HIPPA compliance, how to manage interpreters; and examining the whole process for providing services.

I think we were all very aware that starting this program had many moving parts and that it wasn’t going to be as easy as just putting two chairs in a corner and assigning clients to students. It was a long and complex process, if we were going to do this right. These clients are already underserved by the community and are statistically more likely to receive substandard quality of care. It was important that we gave them the best care we could and that our students were going to have a positive experience.

After establishing a format and structure for the services, we recruited two doctoral-level counseling students who were licensed professional counselors to begin seeing clients. We called this our pilot study. We evaluated the progress of these initial students and used this data to inform the placement of master’s students. That following semester, we began placing master’s counseling students in their internships and practicums at the site. Thus far, the clients and the students both consider this program a great success.

 

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to counselors who might want to get involved in something similar in their local area?

One of the key members of our team, Mark DeHaven, is known for saying, “Collaboration is good, but partnership is better.” Too often we try to collaborate with community sites because they are great places to get data or place students, and that has merit. However, when you partner with a community agency, you begin to share responsibility and work together toward common goals, and that’s a whole other wonderfully beautiful thing.

I invite those who want to start these kinds of programs to begin by building strong community partnerships. It is complicated and sometimes cumbersome to partner with community agencies, but it has to be less about you and your agenda, and more about the needs of the people you are serving.

It’s also important that you develop a strong team of like-minded people [who are] willing to not just talk the talk but also walk the walk. I am lucky to work along some great and passionate people from different departments. Our team consists of Edward Wierzalis, a fellow Department of Counseling faculty member and the UNCC counseling program clinical coordinator; Mark DeHaven, a distinguished professor in public health science; Roger Suclupe, a lecturer from social work; Amy Peterman, an associate professor and director of clinical training in the Health Psychology Department; and a counseling Ph.D. student, Carolina Benitez.

This team made this project come together. So, my second piece of advice for future counselors is to build a good team.

 

The NPR piece says this came about because you were “looking to get more involved in the community.” Can you elaborate? Why is that important to you?

Well, I think this is probably a pretty personal question. I think everyone on our team serves in the community for different reasons. For me, I am driven by the spiritual ideas of welcoming the stranger, reaching out to those deemed the least and doing justice. I was also mentored by people who continually stated that in a world with so many health disparities, economic disparities and so much need, counselor educators should strive to go beyond mere talk and do impactful work.

After the NPR story went national, the first words from my mentor’s mouth were, “Some people got help — and that is the important thing.” I hang that email by my desk at work because it keeps me focused. Those of us with counseling training are equipped to do good in this world. Doing nothing seems like a mistake to me.

 

What type of nontextbook lessons have you seen your students learning?

Probably what I’ve enjoyed the most about this process is the surprising reactions I’ve seen from students. Our program has an emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity, so the students are well-versed in textbook knowledge. However, the internship experience [at BHC] offeredtears_in_eyes them a real quality experience working with a population that was culturally different from their own.

I have had students come to me during their experience and sit in my office with tears in their eyes, and say things like “I just didn’t know” and “I love working with these people.” I think it raised student awareness to some of the struggles Latino immigrants face, such as having to cope with the traumas they experienced before entering the U.S., the stress and anxiety of leaving loved ones behind, and trying to care for family with limited resources. They also expressed new levels of multicultural awareness and realized that there was much they had taken for granted, such as the ability to speak the same language as their clients.

At the end of the most recent semester, we had students describe their experiences, and most stated that what [they had] learned most form the program was “working with people who are culturally different from you,” “understanding that most Latinos are very different and come from different countries, even though they are all labeled as Latino” and “learning the challenges of working with translators and the importance of tuning into body language.” Students also stated that this site [BHC] provided them with experiences that many of the other sites could not.

 

What do you want counselors to know about this program and your experience with it?

I would want my colleagues across the country to know one thing: This is worth doing. Latinos and other racial ethnic minorities are not receiving services at the same rates as the majority population. There is a need for helping professionals willing to reach out to our communities.

This kind of work might be complicated to set up and require more energy than you want to expend, but it’s good work and it is worth doing. It’s a great experience for the students and the community. It’s not simple work; you will most likely make a lot of mistakes getting this kind of a program off the ground – I know we did – but it is so much better to dance and miss a few steps than to never dance at all.

 

****

 

From NPR: “Students Fill a Gap in Mental Health Care for Immigrants

Find out more about the Bethesda Health Center at caminocommunitycenter.org

 

Contact Daniel Gutierrez at DGutierrez@uncc.edu

 

****

 

Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

****

 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling and Russian culture

By Anton Ivanov and Clifton Mitchell April 27, 2016

In Russia, counseling is often not considered a substantial profession. Unfortunately, the same is true for any country that used to be a part of the USSR. A very limited number of nonmedical-model counseling centers exist, particularly in rural parts of the country. The sad truth, however, is that most Branding-Images_Russiaof the Russian population doesn’t even know about such services.

Anton Ivanov (this article’s first author) grew up in Russia. After five years in the United States, and as a second-year student in a counseling program, he has become acutely aware of the substantial contrasts between the two countries when it comes to their perspective and practice of counseling. He has a desire to educate American counselors about his country and people.

Historical context: Residue of the Soviet regime

To grasp fully the mentality of the Russian people regarding counseling, one needs to look deep into the country’s history. In the Soviet era (1922–1991), counseling and psychological services were either not available or were rejected by the government and people. Thus, such services were extremely rare. Lacking counseling services, Russians with mental health problems or drug and alcohol addictions were historically treated by medical doctors through the use of medications.

Sigmund Freud’s works were translated into Russian during the Soviet era and were one of the few sources of learning about psychotherapy for Soviet therapists. However, his works were soon forbidden, as were many works of other Western practitioners. For those seeking a more thorough review of the history and current development of counseling in Russia, we suggest reading Christine L. Currie, Marina V. Kuzmina and Ruslan I. Nadyuk’s article, “The Counseling Profession in Russia: Historical Roots, Current Trends and Future Perspectives,” in the October 2012 Journal of Counseling & Development.

Historically, people diagnosed with severe mental health issues in Russia were often sent to medically oriented psychiatric hospitals where confidentiality rights were not generally considered. When records were disclosed, citizens were often stigmatized and disgraced, which limited their opportunities for employment and minimized their chances of living a life without scrutiny. In many Russian communities, simply mentioning that parents were seeking mental health services for their children or themselves could have negative consequences. When such information became public knowledge, families’ reputations were jeopardized, and they were often stigmatized as “dysfunctional.” Unfortunately, these attitudes remain prevalent today.

Further compounding the stigma, the government used psychiatry as a tool to suppress ideas that were different from the accepted ideology by labeling rebels as “mentally unstable.” Because the specter of mental health problems were used to dissuade dissent, terms such as psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy came to arouse fear among the population.

To complicate matters further, the idea that social or environmental factors could cause certain mental health issues was strictly rejected; the only allowed stance was that all psychiatric disorders had a biological cause. As a result, people suffering from psychological issues often minimized their symptoms in an effort not to see a doctor. When Russian people are sick, they often quip that “the issue will disappear by itself” or “it is already too late to treat the issue; it is incurable.”

Throughout Russian history, its people have commonly sought counseling and psychological help from “healers” who are believed to possess “good” energy, holy powers, skills to fix people’s issues and the ability to foresee events. Healers often prescribe herbs that are believed to be helpful. Russians also practice balneotherapy, take mud baths and schedule spa visits to reduce their stress levels and treat physiological issues. Most Russians rarely see a doctor about their mental health issues. Instead, many Russians prefer to talk about their problems with their friends in the kitchen while sharing a bottle of vodka.

Both historically and today, Russians respect and trust the army, the church and the national leader. In times of crisis, the Russian people have been inspired and united through the hope that they place in their leaders and the church. People still rely on the Russian Orthodox Church to “solve” their issues. People go to the church to have all their questions answered by priests and in hopes of magically ridding themselves of their mental health issues by either drinking holy water or attending public worship. Russians view priests as authority figures and trust them much more so than they do mental health therapists. Unfortunately, priests have little or no training in counseling and rely on their own knowledge to assist people who are dealing with mental health issues.

Counseling challenges and concerns

Russians’ mental health problems are similar to those found in other countries, but these problems are exacerbated by deeply ingrained political policies and social attitudes that are coupled with severe socioeconomic hardship. High rates of depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, eating disorders, divorce, suicide and unemployment are all present. Other lifestyle factors contribute to high rates of cancer and AIDS, leading to a decline in the average life expectancy. Racism, local and international wars, and religious discrimination further add to the stress. In a country where much of the population lives below the poverty level, it appears little might be done to thwart the high levels of depression and apathy. Recent economic sanctions have intensified these problems.

In Russian culture, many men view marriage as a loss of freedom, whereas women generally see marriage as a significant step toward a happy life. Women are often viewed as an inferior gender that prefers dependency and dreams only of having a family, whereas men conduct themselves assertively and prefer independence. Many male children are raised in Spartan conditions under which displays of emotion and the questioning of parents are rarely allowed. Unfortunately, acting in an aggressive manner is too often reinforced. These factors, in combination, have resulted in high rates of domestic violence and an overall hostile culture throughout Russia, making family counseling an urgent need.

Although sexuality is widely discussed among Russians, parents, teachers and priests are skeptical about sex education and hesitate to utilize it. Unplanned pregnancies have resulted in high abortion rates. In a 2001 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Barbara Sibbald noted that Russian women had six abortions on average during their lifetimes. The prevalence of unplanned pregnancies has also resulted in overflowing orphanages that house abandoned children and those taken away from their parents because of drug and alcohol addiction. Understandably, a substantial need exists for access to birth control, sex education, family counseling services and drug and alcohol treatment.

Current status and foundational needs

Generally speaking, counseling in Russia is decades behind the United States in terms of acceptance, education and theoretical development. Yet, as Currie, Kuzmina and Nadyuk noted, counseling has been recognized as a branch of social work and is starting to gain a presence in Russia. Still, counselor education programs such as those commonly found in U.S. colleges are extremely rare in Russia. Counseling is still several steps away from becoming a viable profession in Russia, and various issues need to be addressed before it is viewed as a legitimate, functioning entity.

For instance, the requirements for training and certification vary across the country and are not established or consistently regulated by any governing body. Unfortunately, this has resulted in numerous charlatans and unqualified practitioners claiming to provide “counseling.” Currently, very few facilities consider offering practicums or internships to students. This leaves many beginning counselors poorly prepared for real-life practice. In addition, outstanding students with college degrees are offered no assurance of employment unless they have the aid of social and administrative connections. In addition, the low income of counselors does not attract many students to the field.

After an American Counseling Association delegation visited Russia in 2006, a Counseling Today article reported that Russian counselors were prone to learning one theory and using it exclusively. There appears to be a limited amount of training across theories. Thus, the idea of counselors adapting approaches to the client’s individual personality and problems is not commonly practiced. It is apparent that expanded training in a wider array of approaches is strongly needed.

In a country where corruption is too often the norm and where ethical codes are not viewed as essential, adherence to the strict ethical standards present in the United States is not emphasized. In her article, Sibbald noted that sexual relationships between medical practitioners and clients are common, and ethical standards regarding such relationships are not enforced. In particular because of Russians’ historical distrust of mental health services, it is essential that formal ethical guidelines be established, taught and monitored. Until the Russian public learns to trust that its counselors will protect confidentiality, mental health services will not gain a foothold in Russia.

Potential counseling needs of Russian immigrants 

Many Russian immigrants would benefit from the counseling services offered in the United States, but counselors who underestimate the significance of cultural differences could inhibit the process. In a chapter in the 2004 book Culturally Competent Practice With Immigrant and Refugee Children and Families, Tamar Green described some of the primary psychological challenges that Russians encounter when coming to the United States. These challenges include cultural shock, which involves transitioning from a socialistic to a capitalistic society and from a nonreligious or Russian Orthodox atmosphere to the American spiritual environment. In addition, immigrants must manage language barriers, unemployment, basic shopping knowledge, navigation of the medical system, loneliness and isolation.

Although children adapt to the American environment faster, they still experience issues such as feeling neglected by parents, getting help with schoolwork and not feeling protected in a new environment. When going through the adjustment process, these youth can be psychologically traumatized. Green noted that they are searching for their new selves in an environment in which they have distinctly different names and accents. In addition, they are struggling to find new friends, striving to match American clothing styles and trying to develop new hobbies and interests, all of which are quite different from what they knew back home in Russia. At the same time, Russian parents adapting to this new environment are equally overwhelmed and cannot attend to children as much as they might wish. Yet, by virtue of possessing strong and persistent survival skills, Russians have learned to preserve their culture and identity while managing change and settling in other countries.

Russians usually view doctors as authority figures and readily hand their problems over to them. Similarly, if Russian clients decide to try counseling, they may expect the counselor to take responsibility for their problems and are likely to follow the counselor’s advice without question. Because of these characteristics, person-centered approaches to counseling are not likely to be suitable for these clients.

In addition, because of the harsh nature of Russian culture, empathy is not readily understood by most Russians. Olga Bondarenko, an associate professor of psychology at Nizhni Novgorod State University in Russia, points out in an article that Russians frequently mistake empathy in therapy for sympathy or pity, which is less acceptable to them (see bit.ly/23eZEZj). For this reason, directive techniques are much more suitable.

It might also be noted that Russian culture tends to be very philosophical, and Russians like to approach problems from philosophical perspectives. Existential approaches in counseling might best accommodate this cultural feature.

Another feature of Russian culture is a reluctance to wait. Hence, pacing in counseling can become a challenge because Russians expect immediate results. In addition, many immigrants simply cannot afford long-term treatment because of financial constraints. Likewise, the mindset of many Russians is that money should be invested in something tangible, such as electronics, clothes, cars or houses. Investing in counseling will likely seem foreign and even useless to them because of their inability to grasp its benefits and see the results immediately. Counselors will need to explain to Russian immigrants that counseling in the United States is a slower, more deliberate process.

Russian culture is communistic and collectivistic, and because a large percentage of the population lives in extended households, family is likely to be an integral part of these clients’ lives. In Russian schools and institutions, children are called by their last names, thus further promoting the ideology
that family comes first. In stark contrast to American culture, the familial emphasis of Russian culture strongly limits the idea of individuality, if not eliminating it altogether. Counselors should remain cognizant of this when attempting to construct problem solutions for Russian clients.

To better understand these clients, practitioners should bear in mind that Russians may appear to be grumpy, closed, secretive, suspicious, quiet, anxious and rather shy because they have often lived in a state of uncertainty. Many elders were traumatized by the division of the Soviet Union, which resulted in a loss of country, land, currency, political leaders and, most important, identity. It is not uncommon to encounter Russian elders who still hope and dream of one day again living in a socialistic society similar to the former USSR.

Because of a lack of experience with and understanding about counseling, counseling interventions remain novel to most Russian immigrants. If they were court ordered to attend counseling, they would likely find the process strange and present as exceptionally skeptical about its helpfulness. In addition, historical cultural attitudes toward mental health services may be ingrained in these clients, which might make them seem resistant to the process. Counselors should be aware of and prepared to manage this aspect of counseling Russians.

Similar to other cultures, Russians like to criticize and complain about the opposing mindsets and attitudes they encounter in other Russians and the Russian government. Incongruously, counselors may discover that some Russian immigrants are not close to or do not speak positively of other Russian immigrants. If such sentiments arise in counseling sessions, however, counselors should be careful in aligning with these perspectives in an effort to join with the client. Ironically, Russian immigrants might feel offended and disrespected by an American counselor who aligns with a negative attitude toward Russians and their motherland.

Overwhelming contrasts

To comprehend the essence of Russian culture and meet Russians’ counseling needs, one must understand the country’s history and the unique features of its people. This article was written to provide a glimpse into this often misunderstood world.

Being in the United States for five years has given me (Anton) an increased understanding of the usefulness of counseling and its eventual benefits for Russians. Being in a counseling program has intensified my desire to see the counseling field grow in Russia and be used by Russian immigrants. I believe that some information described in this article may also be applicable when working with immigrants from the countries of the former USSR or other Russian-speaking immigrants.

Yet counselors in the United States need to understand that counseling is foreign to most Russians. It is not something that meets the needs of those who come from or exist in a society in which the primary focus is survival, not personal growth. It is our hope that counseling services will progress in Russia and that through an understanding of Russian culture, counselors in this country will be better prepared to educate and counsel Russians.

 

****

 

Anton Ivanov is from Orel, Russia, and is a second-year student in the clinical mental health counseling program at East Tennessee State University (ETSU). He hopes to seek residence in the United States, promote awareness of Russian culture among Americans and help Russian immigrants acclimate to American culture. Contact him at ivanova@goldmail.etsu.edu.

Clifton Mitchell is professor emeritus at ETSU and author of Effective Techniques for Dealing With Highly Resistant Clients. He travels the country giving seminars on the management of resistance in therapy and providing legal and ethical training in a game-show format. Contact him at cliftmitch@comcast.net, and visit his website at cliftonmitchell.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org