The following article was originally published on the Mental Health Daily of the Hogg Foundation of Mental Heal (http://mhdaily.org/history-and-current-relevance-of-chicanao-psychology-addressing-mental-health-in-mexican-american-latinao-communities/)
In 2014, a Fox News Latino article cited that only 1 in 11 Latina/os seek mental health treatment. Chicana/o Psychology is rarely discussed as recourse to address this situation.
In 2004, Dr. Manuel Ramirez outlined the tenets of Chicana/o Psychology, but the roots of Chicana/o Psychology run deeper. In 1977 the book “Chicano Psychology” was published. Still before that was the work of Dr. George I. Sanchez (considered the “Father of Chicana/o Psychology”), whose work in the 1930s shed light on the cultural bias of intelligence testing with children of Mexican descent. Still earlier, in pre-conquest Mexico, the Aztec (or Mexica) had specialists called tonalpouhqui, who focused on mental health issues, according to Dr. Amado Padilla in the 1984, 2nd edition of “Chicano Psychology”.
I focus here on three core aspects of Chicana/o Psychology: Ethnic Identity, Family, and Spirituality.
The notion of a strong ethnic identity is one that is particularly relevant for Chicana/o youth in our society. Dr. Martha Bernal (1931-2001), is the first known Chicana to obtain a doctoral degree in psychology in the U.S. and made significant research contributions in understanding the ethnic identity development of Chicana/o youth. A positive Chicana/o identity can be a buffer to the stereotypes, microaggressions, and blatant discrimination faced by Chicana/os. When working with youth who are exhibiting behavioral issues and who may be referred for individual or group counseling to address anger management, disruptive behaviors, even depression or anxiety; adding a component that directly addresses enhancing and strengthening one’s ethnic identity is strongly recommended and can have a direct effect on improving mental health, academic achievement, and overall well-being. This may include a multidisciplinary approach, where a bit of Chicana/o history is integrated into the method—developing a positive identity within a society where one’s history is not acknowledged is difficult at best.
Another key Chicana/o cultural characteristic is the notion of familismo. This is more than just the notion that Chicana/os are a “family-oriented” people. Most peoples of the world are “family-oriented”. However, in our Western, individualistic society, it is the manner in which the family-centeredness of Chicana/os manifests that may conflict with dominant notions of “healthy families”. Accepted models of healthy development emphasize the individual separating from their immediate family as they grow into adulthood. However, Chicana/o families often operate from a more collectivist perspective, which views individuals growing into adulthood both separately as well as a part of their immediate and extended families. Thus, the family psychology notion of “enmeshment”—a concept describing families where personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development—may not be applicable to Chicana/o families. When mental health issues are present, asking about family and even asking if family should be involved should always be part of psychotherapy treatment. Not to do so can be deemed negligent practice by the mental health provider and certainly not culturally responsive treatment. The role the client holds in the family may be a crucial component in understanding their mental health struggles. The notion of interdependence is much more appropriate than the traditional notion of dependency.
Although the role of spirituality and spiritual beliefs can vary widely among Chicana/os, its importance is almost always present in some manner when it comes to mental health. Whether religion plays a central role in everyday life, or if spirituality is on the margins, for many Chicana/os some form of spiritual beliefs or traditions remain generation after generation. Chicana/o Psychology recognizes the role of spirituality not only in how one may conceptualize the reasons for a mental illness, but also in ways that it may help with alleviating symptoms. The line between spirituality and mental health is not always clearly defined for Chicana/os. Learning where this line is and finding out its meaning for Chicana/o clients is key. Psychotherapists are obliged to meet the client “where they are at”. The onus is on us to try to empathize and understand the role of those we serve. While it is deemed offensive or rude in our current society to ask outright about one’s spiritual beliefs or religion, in the therapeutic context there are ways in which we can and must address this issue. For example, rather than asking “What is your religion?” you may ask “Did you grow up with a particular spiritual or religious tradition?” and can be followed up with “Are there any spiritual or religious beliefs that you feel guide you today?”
Chicana/o Psychology offers an important framework for understanding mental health issues in this community. As the mental health field continues to move toward more culturally responsive approaches, it can learn much from the history and current advances in Chicana/o Psychology.