Aug 02, 2015


Is Psychotherapy Still Taboo for Latinos?

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Psychotherapy Latinossource: Joe Houghton

Not long ago, I was waiting for an elevator at an office building.  I overhead the following conversation between a Latina woman and a Latino man, both in their early thirties:

The guy comments:  “I didn’t sleep well last night…got terrible insomnia…I’m tired, breaking down…”

The woman replies:  “What’s going on? Why can’t you sleep?”

The guy replies quietly: “I don’t know..I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes – I think I’m having panic attacks…”

The woman replies:  “real panic attacks?  I’ve gotten those in the past, not good.  You should see a therapist or some sort of counselor, man. It helps.”

The guy replies:  “Me? No way!  I’m not crazy?  Do I look like I’m crazy?  I’m not yelling and screaming…”

Listenting to this conversation reminded me that seeking psychological help is still a misunderstood and often taboo subject for many people, especially for Latinos.  I’m not going to discuss the cultural reasons behind the resistance to psychological counseling, but I thought I would answer a question I’m often asked as a psychologist:

How do you know when you need to seek professional help from a psychologist or psychotherapist?

People seek psychological counseling for many reasons.  In general, however, individuals decide they need a therapist when:

  • There is a new crisis in their lives:  a loss; serious problems at home; a traumatic experience AND they are having a hard time coping with this crisis (e.g. not being able to function as well as they were functioning prior to the crisis).
  • There has been a significant change in their lives that they’re having a hard time adjusting to:  divorce; loss of a job; marriage; going to college; giving birth; retirement.
  • Psychiatric condition affecting your emotions:  For example, depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and manic-depression, along others.  There is a range of symptoms that can be experienced under these conditions.  These conditions can range from mild to moderate to severe.  The more they affect the individual’s level of day-to-day functioning, the more they should seek counseling.
  • Psychiatric conditions that disturb judgment and thinking process:  If someone you love is expressing paranoia, poor judgment, and bizarre or odd thinking pattern that is affecting how they relate to others and their functioning, they should seek psychological and/or psychiatric help.
  • Past unresolved psychological issues:  Many of us have experienced difficult times in our past, whether it is an abusive relationship, parental neglect, or really hard times.  Sometimes, we need to have these moments processed and validated in order to move on with our lives and achieve some closure.  Usually, unresolved issues show themselves in the form of maladaptive patterns or behaviors that we tend to engage in (e.g., a pattern of dating abusive men).
  • Relationship, marital or family conflict:  A large number of individuals seek counseling when they feel conflicted by their relationship with loved ones.  Often, couples come together to learn how to communicate better, or to discuss an ongoing problem in the relationship.  Many of the women that come to me for psychotherapy are women who have had a very difficult relationship with their mothers.  Psychological services can be very helpful with these types of problems.

Do you have any questions about psychology or psychotherapy?  Do you think seeing a psychologist is still very taboo in the Latino culture?

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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  1. I can only speak for those I know – and it is still very much taboo in the Latino circles I run in.

    Members of my Anglo family have been to therapy, (and we’ve had relatively good lives – nothing majorly traumatic) – and my (Latino) in-laws find this weird. They find it weirder still that we talk about it without shame.

    During difficult times in our marriage I have pushed for marriage counseling but my husband would never go – thankfully we were able to work it out, but I think it definitely would have been easier with an impartial third party.

    A lot of my in-laws, and even my husband, would benefit from talking out their feelings and figuring out where they stem from, but they see it as “weak” or “crazy”. It also doesn’t help when an individual isn’t naturally introspective so then they aren’t even able to help themselves.

    Luckily I am pretty good in this department and I have helped my husband make the connection between some of his behaviors and emotions and things that happened to him growing up, etc.

    For those family members who stubbornly won’t go, sometimes playing their live-in therapist is the only option.

    • That’s a good point Tracy — not only do we have the taboo part to fight through, but also the fact that sometimes people don’t understand how insight and introspection can actually help them achieve clarity and closure with an important issue in their lives. Your family is lucky to have you help them with this process.

  2. looking at the number of psychologists/therapists in Argentina I would say at least it’s not taboo there – most argentinians have a therapist and aren’t ashamed of it, maybe it’s not the latino-culture where it’s taboo, but in our “exile” countries

    • You are absolutely correct Jen on your observation. Psychology and psychoanalysis in Europe, including Argentina, has always been very well-accepted. In fact, it is positively perceived to be in therapy.

  3. As a therapist and a Latina, I definitely agree that seeing a psychotherapist is still taboo within Latino culture. Many of us are raised to never discuss our problems with a stranger. A majority of these fears stem from bringing shame upon the family by showing a weakeness (which critiques the way you were raised and who raised you) or instability within the family’s foundation to our community.

    I believe we can learn that seeking help for emotional issues in fact shows strength of character and responsibility in dealing with one’s own life (versus self-destructive behaviors or abusing loved ones out of personal frustrations). Within my experience working with Latino families, I have seen first hand that therapy can create happy and healthier family members and the unit as awhole. They have taught each other and other Latinos not to suffer in silence.

    For all the Latinas out there that are thinking about career as a psychotherapist, PLEASE GOR FOR IT! We NEED MORE Latina therapists.

    • Hey Lisa, good to see you around here! You said it exactly how it is. And I totally agree, we need more Latina psychologists…! If there is anyone out there considering going into psychology, social work or counseling career, and have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me — I’m happy to answer your questions.

      • Thanks Angelica! I am definitely around! :-) I am just working hard and focused on achieving some goals. I am loving all the articles/blogs and discussions. It’s truly amazing!

  4. Thanks so much for shedding light on this topic! As you mentioned, I most definitely think it is a serious taboo with lack of understnading…just recently a cousin passed a comment in regards to therapy by saying “You know, that’s not for Latinos…we just can’t talk to strangers about our issues…”

    I would love however, some really good insight about how you go about finding the “right” therapist for you? Sometimes I don’t even know where to begin to look, and fear that there’s a “quality” discrepancy between therapists who accept insurance plans or do not (i.e. paying out of pocket will get you “better” therapy”. I know that may sound silly…

    I also have a friend who mentions you should interview your therapist to see if he/she’s a good match…how do you even go about that?!

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