Chicago organizations seek to expand mental health services and diversify available therapists | Latin Voice | Chicago News

This story was produced in partnership with students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and WTTW News.

By: Elisabeth Betts, Rafaela Jinich and Antonia Mufarech

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

Part of this effort is to develop a more diverse pool of therapists.

Moises Attie, a sophomore at Northwestern University, had trouble finding a Latino therapist in Chicago. To fill this need, he connects on his computer with his mental health provider in Panama.

With Hispanics and Latinos making up just 6% of the psychology workforce in the United States, Attie has seen his friends struggle as well.

“I think it’s better and more effective to find a therapist who really understands your culture,” Attie said, “and finding something like that here in Chicago probably isn’t the same as finding a therapist at you.”

Nestor Flores, director of behavioral health initiatives at the Pilsen Wellness Center, said after a family tragedy he struggled to find a therapist. Eventually he became one.

“When we searched for services, we had this feeling that we couldn’t find services in our language and culture,” Flores said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that only 35% of Hispanic/Latino adults with mental health issues receive treatment annually, compared to a national average of 46%.

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

“The term that gets used a lot is cultural humility, which means you approach a culture with that humility of: I may know certain things about your culture, certain things might resonate or connect between us,” Flores said. “But, I, there’s a lot of things I won’t know.”

The Pilsen Wellness Center works with a state-funded crisis program connected to 988, the national suicide hotline. The center offers help to people in emergency situations and trains people who have experienced mental health crises to become therapists.

“There’s this mandate to hire people with lived experience,” Flores said. “And what that means is that people who are in recovery, who have had mental health issues, emotional issues, or substance use issues, and on that recovery journey, have been able, by because of their lived experience, engage the person in a crisis and share that lived experience.

The center offers services to patients who want a no-commitment therapy session and who are experiencing a mental health issue.

Veronica Wanzer, a counselor and assistant professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, has experience both as a therapist and as a black woman seeking therapy.

“Looking for someone who was competent was my approach early on,” Wanzer said. “I quickly realized that many people, even if they had degrees and were very competent on paper, would not be able to support me culturally.

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

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

Although not the same as a therapy session, many organizations are now promoting technology as a way to make mental health topics more accessible.

Dr. Anthony Chambers, director of studies and director of the Center for Applied Psychology and Family Studies at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, said it’s important to understand each patient’s needs.

“We all have a desire to want to be understood,” Chambers said. “So you have to start by being curious and making sure you’re listening. Most importantly, don’t be judgmental. This is something that will prevent you from establishing a good connection with your client.

In 2020, only 4% of therapists in the United States were black, and Chambers said the profession was disproportionately female. The shortage of black male therapists means that many black men who want a therapist who looks like them may not see one at all.

“Men, period, struggle with vulnerability, especially, I would say, black men,” Chamber said. “So they want to be able to know that they’ll also be able to come in and not be judged, be understood. And I think that becomes a real… important part of the therapeutic process.

Attie said he has stopped looking for a therapist in the Chicago area and will continue to provide services virtually with a mental health provider in Latin America.

“Therapy is a sign of strength and a sign or a reflection of someone really trying to be a better person,” Attie said. “Trying to be a better person, I think is the best, probably the most human quality of a human being.”

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