During the months surrounding the 2016 presidential election, the rhetoric around immigration was so charged that Daniel Gutierrez, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and American Counseling Association member, noticed a substantial uptick in panic disorders at a free clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina. One therapist even told Gutierrez about a client who was having panic attacks every time that a political ad played on television.
Four years later, Gutierrez, an assistant professor in the counselor education program at William & Mary and coordinator of the addictions emphasis for the university’s clinical mental health counseling program, says he still encounters immigrants who are terrified and no longer understand the immigration process in the United States. Many worry about family members back in the countries they left. Some worry that if they visit these family members, they may not be able to easily return to the United States themselves. Some are confronted by people screaming “Go back home!” as they shop for groceries or walk down the street. Fear, guilt and worry are constant emotions for many immigrants, notes Gutierrez, who is also faculty director of the New Leaf Clinic at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
In fact, Gutierrez says that providing counseling services to immigrant populations can sometimes feel like working in a hospital emergency room. “We’re just trying to stop the bleeding for a minute, and sometimes we don’t have time to look at some of the other concerns,” he says. “You don’t even know where to start. There’s so much trauma and anxiety.”
“They have such a history of past trauma that it overshadows everything,” Gutierrez continues. “They’ll have this experience on the border crossing or in their home country, and when they get here, that [experience] influences every relationship.” Gutierrez has seen cases in which a mother has difficulty connecting with her partner and children because of the guilt she feels about a trauma that happened while the family was crossing into the United States. For this reason, counselors often have to deal with larger presenting issues — trauma, anxiety, depression — before they can work on other concerns such as relationship issues, he explains.
Immigrants also face myriad stressors after migrating to a new country, and these stressors take a toll on their mental health. In fact, researchers have identified an immigrant paradox in which recent immigrants often outperform more established immigrants in areas of health, education, conduct and criminal justice.
This paradox illustrates how damaging acculturative stressors such as financial concerns, insufficient living conditions or food, cultural misunderstandings, an inability to communicate or speak a new language, lack of employment, and isolation can be to immigrants. Lotes Nelson, a clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University who often presents on this topic, points out that these stressors can result in symptoms of anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), conduct disorders (especially for children) or substance abuse issues.
Isolation and the lack of a support system can cause immigrants to turn inward and internalize their symptoms, says Nelson, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida, and, as an LPC and approved clinical supervisor in North Carolina, offers distance counseling services. Her clients who are immigrants often report feeling that something isn’t right — their heart is racing all the time or they constantly feel sad, for example — but they can’t pinpoint what it is or why they feel this way. In addition, they frequently lack people they trust to talk to about their concerns.
One problem is that accessibility to counseling services is limited for immigrant populations. Gutierrez, author of the chapter “Counseling Latinx Immigrant Couples and Families in the USA” in the forthcoming book Intercultural Perspectives on Family Counseling, says that immigrants are less likely to receive mental health services, and when they do, the services are often lower quality than what the majority culture receives. “The counselors who are offering the care [to immigrant populations] are overwhelmed with large caseloads. They are about to hit burnout. … The immigrant stories of journeying over are [also] really difficult,” he explains.
In addition, Gutierrez finds that the counseling profession doesn’t have enough practitioners who understand the cultural implications and nuances of working with immigrants.
Nelson, a national certified counselor and a minority doctoral fellow of the National Board for Certified Counselors, also points out that immigrants may not voluntarily seek counseling because many have not been exposed to mental health care until reaching the United States. So, at least initially, she says, they may not consider counseling to be an acceptable service or treatment. When someone is not familiar with the mental health care process or if they question the validity of therapy, then they are not going to easily share their thoughts, concerns and fears in counseling, explains Nelson, a member of ACA.
Gutierrez and Nelson agree that to overcome some of the barriers that immigrants face in receiving mental health care, work must be done on the part of counselors to cultivate personal relationships and build trust with them. Counselors need to understand where each individual client is from and what that person’s transition to living in the United States has been like. Gutierrez also stresses that if they truly want to make a difference, counselors must enter into partnerships with immigrant populations and the communities that serve them.
Overcoming language barriers
Language is often a barrier when working with immigrant populations, and finding bilingual counselors can be a problem, according to Gutierrez. In 2009, when Gutierrez lived in Orlando, Florida, he sought his own mental health counselor but found only five who were Latinx and spoke both Spanish and English.
Gutierrez, co-founder of the annual Latinx Mental Health Summit, also points out that native Spanish speakers will sometimes use physiological terms to talk about psychological illness, which results in diagnoses being missed or lost in translation. For example, in some Latinx cultures, people may say, “My heart hurts” or “I have pain in my heart” to describe sadness.
Nelson has observed that immigrants who are experiencing anxiety also commonly describe their symptoms physiologically, such as having abdominal pains. Some clients may believe that a stomachache is purely physical and not related to mental health, she points out.
Counselors can overcome some language barriers by working with interpreters. Because of the complexity of translating mental health terms and concepts, Nelson cautions counselors to make sure they are working with qualified interpreters, not just individuals who happen to speak the language. With some clients, certain mental health terms or symptoms may not exist in their cultures, so their language may not even have a word to describe it, she adds.
Nelson invites interpreters to ask her questions to clarify and help them make sense of what they are translating. She also requests that they translate her words verbatim to the client to avoid potential misinterpretations.
Finding qualified interpreters can also be a challenge, Gutierrez points out. Nelson and Gutierrez have used interpreting agencies, hospitals and university language departments to find interpreters. Once counselors do find someone qualified, they then need to ensure that the translator will keep clients’ information confidential, Gutierrez adds. He recommends that counselors have interpreters sign confidentiality agreements. For him, the best-case scenario is working with interpreters in the helping fields (e.g., case management, nursing, health education) because they already understand the importance of client confidentiality.
There is also a danger of misinterpreting body language when working with clients from different cultures, Nelson notes. For example, whereas nodding in U.S. culture typically denotes comprehension, some clients raised in Asian cultures may nod because they are embarrassed about not fully understanding what is being communicated or don’t want to make the therapist feel bad that they don’t understand, Nelson explains.
Nelson has also had clients bring in their children to translate for them in session. When this happens, she explains to the client that even though the children may be capable of translating, the conversation may be beyond the child’s developmental age, so she would prefer working with a translator. However, some clients resist working with a translator and feel safe only when having someone inside their family unit translate their personal information. When this happens, Nelson respects the client’s preference but carefully explains the potential consequences of choosing that option.
Many immigrant populations place a high value on family, and this means that counselors should make it a priority too. “If a client has to choose between their child and being seen by [a therapist] … they always prioritize family. They always prioritize children,” Gutierrez says. “So, family cohesion is a stronger predictor of whether [immigrants] engage in services or benefit from services than [it is with] the majority culture.”
Gutierrez says counselors will be more successful engaging with immigrant populations if they offer family services, provide some form of child care, or help clients connect how their own well-being and mental health influence their children’s well-being.
Nelson agrees that counselors must find ways to incorporate the family if they are to be successful in reaching out to immigrant populations. Because child care can be a challenge for many of these clients, she suggests that counselors consider providing clients’ children with a separate room where they can color, watch movies or engage in other developmentally appropriate activities while their parents are in session. However, she acknowledges that this setup is not always possible, so counselors may have to find other ways to accommodate families.
Clients often come to see Sara Stanizai, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Prospect Therapy in Long Beach, California, because they are navigating two conflicting messages: the individualist mindset widely embraced in the United States and the collectivist mindset often emphasized in their homes. Family was so central to one of Stanizai’s adult clients that the client’s mother had to speak with Stanizai before the client could work with her.
If clients come in discussing problems with their family and the therapist’s advice is to set better boundaries, this could work against the clients’ mental health and well-being because being with their family is a priority for them, Stanizai says.
Instead, she works with clients to reframe the issue with their families to find common ground. Rather than focusing on why a client is at odds with his or her parents, she helps the client think about the underlying motivations and values that they all agree on. For example, the client may agree with the parents’ desire for them to have more opportunities and to be successful, even if the client doesn’t fully agree with the parents’ high expectations or demands to get straight A’s.
Because of the stigma that often surrounds mental health within immigrant communities, some clients may not feel able to talk openly with their families about counseling. This is strange for them because they have such strong family units, Gutierrez points out. An inability to turn to their families can prevent these clients from going to counseling because they fear getting “caught,” he adds.
Thus, confidentiality becomes particularly important when working with immigrants whose communities may stigmatize counseling or whose experiences or undocumented status could prevent them from freely sharing their stories. For example, if an individual’s pastor refers the client to Nelson, she will make a point to say, “I know you came here because your pastor recommended counseling, but this does not mean that what you share here goes back to your pastor. This meeting is for you, and anything you say here will stay within this room.”
When working with clients who are immigrants, counselors should consider the individual’s overall support system, which can include family, friends, faith leaders, community elders, local organizations, medical doctors and other professional service providers, Nelson says. She reminds her clients that she is just one part of their support system. For example, if spirituality is important to a client, then she will say, “It sounds like you have great respect for your worship leader. I want you to continue to go to them while you are also coming to counseling. You have a whole host of support around you.”
“If you as a counselor [have] … tunnel vision — ‘this is me and my client’ — when working with immigrants, then it’s more than likely not going to be successful,” Nelson says. “Because if you only look at one of those resources, such as friends, [clients] are going to get a fraction of the treatment that they need.”
Partnering with the community
Gutierrez learned the value of community and partnerships when he worked as a counseling professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). Mark DeHaven, a distinguished professor in public health sciences at UNCC, taught Gutierrez about community work and connected him with Wendy Pascual, the former director of Camino Community Center, a local free clinic.
Through his partnership with Pascual, Gutierrez learned that the clinic had 85 people on a waiting list to receive mental health services. He also discovered that primary care was often a starting point for immigrants to receive services. The majority of people at the clinic had mental health issues related to depression, anxiety, stress or trauma, and these issues were often a significant driver of their physiological complaints (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure). The physical illness was often just a symptom of a mental health concern — one that was going untreated because of a lack of qualified counselors and services.
Gutierrez worked with Pascual and a team of academics, including DeHaven, to fulfill this need and reduce mental health disparity within the immigrant Latinx community in Charlotte. Graduate counseling students at UNCC agreed to provide counseling services for the clinic, so the services remained free for the immigrant population and operated as part of the students’ counseling training.
Gutierrez notes that counselors need to enter into partnerships if they want to make a difference in immigrant communities. He stresses the word partnership. “There’s a difference between partnership and collaboration,” Gutierrez notes. “Collaborating with people in a community is OK; you do your stuff and then you go back home. But partnership [involves] … joining with people in the community and … adopting their mission and vision.”
Partnerships allow counselors to reach immigrant communities and better understand clients’ cultural values. For clients who are immigrants, it is often about the personal relationship and building confianza, or trust, Gutierrez says. But he notes that in Spanish, the word confianza goes further than just trust. “It’s confidence. It’s connection. It’s partnership. It’s someone who invites you in to break bread,” he explains.
Gutierrez cautions counselors not to assume that immigrant clients are going to come to them. Instead, he advises counselors to work within the communities they want to serve. He also recommends attending community events such as church celebrations or local festivals as a first step toward building these partnerships. By attending the annual Puerto Rican festival in Charlotte, he was able to foster relationships with individuals and learn more about what work was already being done to help immigrant communities.
Counselors should “just follow the crowd backward,” he advises. For example, they can look for people organizing food and backpack drives or voter registration efforts and connect with them because these people are the ones who are already doing great work in the community.
Partnerships have also assisted immigrants in finding Nelson, who notes that most of her clients come to see her because of referrals from religious leaders, resettlement agencies or other clients. She also agrees that immigrant families value seeing counselors out and about in their communities, including at events, festivals, fairs, their places of worship and so on.
Even so, counselors must remember to uphold their ethical obligations, such as protecting client confidentiality, during such community interactions, she notes. When a client brings Nelson a flyer for an upcoming event, she carefully weighs her ethical obligations with the needs of the client: Will attending the event harm or benefit her relationship with the client? Could it in any way interfere with the client’s treatment or the progress the client is making?
She also has conversations with the client about boundaries. They discuss how the client wants to handle this dual relationship and talk through scenarios concerning what could happen as a result of Nelson attending the event. Will the client acknowledge her (and vice versa) when they see each other? How does the client want to explain their relationship to family members and friends who may be at the event?
For Gutierrez, the faith-based community has been the biggest asset in working with immigrant populations. In churches and other spiritual communities, immigrants can typically use their own language, connect with others like them, and feel safe and heard, he explains. For this reason, Gutierrez advises counselors to work with pastors and other spiritual leaders to educate them about the benefits of professional counseling. Often, that is all practitioners need to do to increase the number of immigrants who seek counseling, he says.
Gutierrez tested the power of spirituality for immigrant communities by holding identical educational counseling courses (with the same curriculum and instructor) in a clinic and in a church. Whereas only 20-30% of immigrants completed the course at the clinic, 90% of those attending the class at the church stayed because they said they felt the class was closer to God and more aligned with their beliefs, Gutierrez says.
If clients value spirituality, counselors can integrate that into their sessions and adapt interventions to include spirituality (adhering to the competencies developed by the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling), Gutierrez says. For example, counselors might ask clients how they understand a situation from their own religious or spiritual perspective, or they could discuss the use and function of meditation and prayer, as appropriate, he explains.
Nelson has had immigrant clients with symptoms of depression or anxiety report that “I’m possessed by the devil because I feel this way.” Other clients have told her that in their home country, they would have been taken to church and prayed over for days or weeks for having such feelings. When this happens, she relates mental health needs to medical ones because the concept of medical health is often familiar to these clients, even if mental health is not. She asks them where they went when they had physical pain. When they respond that they went to see a doctor or a healer in their village, she compares that process to seeking a mental health professional to figure out why they feel sad or feel like something is not right with them emotionally, psychologically or socially.
Diagnosing the person, not the culture
“We’ve treated culture in counseling sometimes likes it’s a diagnosis,” Gutierrez asserts. He explains that practitioners sometimes try to adapt counseling approaches to fit specific cultures — for example, using cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) with all Latinx clients. But this method ignores the differences within cultures, he says. CBT may work well for one Latinx client, but another Latinx client may prefer psychoanalysis.
“Good cultural accommodation or adapting culturally responsive care starts with a good conversation about what the client needs and the services you provide,” Gutierrez says.
“There’s still a human being in that chair. … It’s less about the strategies you use and more about the person you’re working with … because they’re dealing with multiple layers of stress, challenges and stigmas. So, find out what their story is before making some assumptions,” he advises.
Being culturally responsive may mean adjusting the length of counseling sessions, Gutierrez notes. Even though a 50-minute clinical session is standard practice in the United States, shorter sessions may work better for some immigrants, he says.
Likewise, Nelson says it is dangerous for counselors to quickly settle on a diagnosis without knowing the client’s overall picture. On the surface, it may look like an immigrant client is dealing with anxiety over moving to a new country, but counselors should consider everything the person has experienced in their life before, during and after migration, she explains. Past and ongoing traumas and adverse childhood experiences can shape a person’s development and can potentially lead to disruptive behaviors, PTSD, depression and anxiety, she adds.
To learn about clients’ immigration experiences, Nelson often says, “Tell me what you went through physically and mentally. What was the living situation when you were migrating, and what is it now? What kind of threats did you experience?”
Often, clients will resist answering these questions because they are not yet willing to focus on the traumatic experiences they went through, Nelson says. Many clients respond along the lines of “I don’t think about that. That’s over now. I want to focus on the here and now” or “That’s just what I had to do to get here and to get a better life.”
When clients dismiss their past experiences, Nelson respects where they’re at emotionally and cognitively and doesn’t push them to share more of their story in that moment. She admits that it is easy as a counselor to develop an unspoken agenda with clients, so she continually reminds herself that counseling is about allowing clients to tell their stories when and how they need to.
Both Gutierrez and Stanizai stress the importance of counselors educating themselves about different cultures and not placing the burden of this education on clients who are immigrants. Although multicultural training courses can be helpful, it is often equally (if not more) beneficial to learn from the community itself, Stanizai says. Gutierrez agrees that immersion is the best teacher, so he advises counselors to put themselves in settings where they are surrounded by people different from themselves.
Stanizai, who specializes in working with first-generation/bicultural Americans and runs an Adult Children of Tiger Moms support group, advises counselors to spend time reading books and watching media written for and by people in the culture they are working with. “Find a local news source, a radio station, novels or nonfiction that can educate you on not only specific topics but also cultural values and beliefs,” Stanizai says.
Cultural awareness helps counselors learn about privilege, avoid making assumptions or buying into stereotypes about groups of people, and better understand how being an immigrant within mainstream American culture can affect clients’ beliefs and mental health, Stanizai says. Most immigrants will not care whether counselors are familiar with every cultural custom, such as marriage contracts, but they will care, she says, if counselors have a surprised reaction — e.g., “What is that? That’s so different!” — to something they share about their culture.
No matter how much counselors educate themselves, they can never learn about all of their clients’ different experiences and cultures. Gutierrez finds that sometimes counselors are scared to talk about race and ethnicity out of concern about potentially making a mistake. This fear can turn into overcorrection and cause counselors not to ask important questions, he notes.
It is OK, Gutierrez says, for counselors to directly address the issue of a client’s race or ethnicity differing from that of the counselor. For example, a counselor could broach the topic by saying, “My family is Latinx. My parents came here from Cuba. You are Asian. I wonder how you feel about getting help from someone whose background is different from yours?”
Gutierrez and Stanizai also advise counselors to take a tutorial stance when working with immigrant clients by asking questions about their unique experiences. Counselors could ask, “What was it like to grow up in your family? How much did culture play a part in your childhood? How is your family different from your best friend’s family? How is it the same?”
Counselors’ hubris can also be a barrier to working effectively with clients who are immigrants, Gutierrez warns. If counselors feel like they are going to be savior figures and fix all of the immigrant’s problems, then that mindset undercuts the progress of the client, he explains.
Stanizai agrees. “It’s easy for very well-meaning therapists to get caught up in trying to prove to their clients that they are good people,” she says. “You want to make sure that you’re not processing [clients’ stories] for your own benefit. … That’s really off-putting, and people can sense it a mile away.”
Clearing the way for immigrants
Counselors only have to sit and hear one immigrant’s story or journey to realize how resilient they are, Gutierrez notes. “I don’t give them solutions. They find them,” he says. “They’ve pulled themselves through all these difficulties and challenges, so there’s this amazing resilience in them.”
Often, the pressures and demands of life, of having to concoct strategies to get to work and home, weigh on them, so Gutierrez says he simply provides them with a safe, secure space where they don’t have to feel all of that extra pressure. “Usually I’m just clearing the way for them,” he says.
Providing this space can take many forms. One therapist Gutierrez knows often has clients sing old hymns or folk songs as a symbolic way of allowing them to recapture a piece of their soul that they may have lost during their journey. In this safe space, clients can grieve what they have lost or what worries them in their own way, Gutierrez explains.
Counselors might also consider simply sharing a cup of coffee with their clients. Gutierrez recalls one immigrant client from early in his counseling career who demonstrated his resourcefulness and taught him how to “break the rules.” The client brought Gutierrez a bag of coffee as a thank you, but Gutierrez explained that he couldn’t accept the client’s gift for ethical reasons. The client said, “Oh, so you can’t take it from me?” So, the client opened the bag, walked to the coffee machine and made two cups of coffee. The client then said, “Well, I’m going to drink a cup. We can share it together.”
This moment was a turning point for Gutierrez. Now, he often enjoys a cup of coffee with clients while they talk in session. This small gesture counters some of the hostility and challenges that immigrants face, especially in today’s environment. As Gutierrez points out, it also creates a comfortable counseling atmosphere that will help immigrant clients find peace and lets them know that “there’s room for [them] here.”
RELATED READING: See the online exclusive article “Straddling two worlds,” which explores the complex and critical issue of identity development among immigrant populations.
Also, check out Counseling Today‘s 2016 Q+A with Gutierrez, “Counseling interns get firsthand exposure to immigrant experience.”
Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
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