Mental Health and Language: Culture and Emotions

7/17/20
WRITTEN BY: Mariana Gómez
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I’m a psychologist and more often than you would imagine, it is believed that we, as emotional health specialists, don’t have our own emotional problems. 

Leaving my country to go to an unknown land had a major impact on my emotional health. Adapting to a new normal brought challenges in addition to the significant language barrier. As a family, we faced different systems, traditions, and food; some of these things were so foreign to us that it was inevitable to miss the land from which we come from. It was a culture shock. 

Then, before we had a chance to fully adapt, we had to adapt to a new normal: a pandemic. And so being far away from home, far from our traditions, far from our language, and our way of life, we had to normalize a new way of living to cope with a virus we didn’t understand. 

When I Knew Needed Help 

I can tell when someone needs help by the way they speak as I was trained to do so. In a moment of reflection, I heard the way I was speaking and understood that it was time to ask for help. I always had an emotional health expert on my diabetes team. In fact, these experts and I talk little about my diabetes, but we would talk about what I needed in my own life to make sure I was in a good place emotionally, what impact my surroundings had on me, and how emotionally involved I get when I work with others through their own issues. This time I realized that I needed someone to help me. If I was going to make it through this pandemic as a person with diabetes, I needed to find a way to care of myself. 

Barriers to Finding Help

My first question was: where could I find help? I would need to find someone in my area, but how? Unfortunately, my insurance company didn’t provide any useful suggestions. I searched within local directories and made many calls, but they could not help me either. The answers I received ranged from: “I am not accepting new patients”, to “I do not know how to work remotely”, and of course, their services were costly. 

On Twitter, I wrote about a dozen tweets tagging colleagues, but they were not helpful. Weeks passed and I must admit I never thought that finding a psychologist would be so difficult. This is wrong, especially if we need help fast, during a pandemic for example. 

Identity, Culture, and Language

After months of searching, I found a specialist. I thought there would be little relevance if they spoke Spanish or not. Frankly, I didn’t even stop to think about it. But speaking English during working hours at a meeting is not the same as speaking about an anxiety crisis in the middle of a pandemic. It really is not. The thing is that the cultural shock was transferred into my emotional health. Cultural shock is not a medical term, it is a way to describe feelings of confusion and anxiety after leaving behind a culture that is familiar to us to live in a new and different one.

I speak and write in English fluently and I know I am a privileged person. But when it comes to emotions, there are other variables that I would’ve never contemplated. My language, itself, carries my culture, which embodies implicit emotions. It impacts the way I move, the way I can express some colloquial words and phrases. It’s rooted in the holidays and meals that bring back fond memories of my country. So, even with a trained psychologist and translator, it can be difficult to convey the impact culture has on my emotional wellbeing. 

There Aren’t Enough Psychologists For People Like Me

According to the American Psychological Association, only about 5,000 psychologists in the United States are Hispanic, representing no more than 5% of all psychologists. This same publication says that only 5.5 percent of psychologists in the country have the ability to provide their services in Spanish. There are more than 14 million Hispanic people in California. Of that total, 84% are from my country. Still, it is difficult to find mental health specialists who speak my language. 

As if it was not already complicated enough, those who choose these academic paths lose the years invested in studying when moving to this country because earning certifications to become a mental health professional requires several evaluations and in many cases taking courses at universities in a country where education is tremendously expensive. It’s a similar situation with becoming a certified diabetes care and education specialist in the United States; even if you’re certified elsewhere, you need to meet the requirements here to practice, but those requirements can be out-of-reach due to financial barriers. 

What About Those Who Don’t Speak English?

My current therapist is wonderful and though she tries to understand me, I know this isn’t the case for others who are facing stronger language barriers. The question comes down to: what if you don’t speak English? Here are some suggestions that may help: 

Directories: There are many, but in my research, I found Psychology Today, where you can learn about the provider’s expertise within the mental health field. 

Resources: NAMI has different resources for us. Here are some of them NAMI’s Compartiendo Esperanza.

Therapy for Latinx: A database of Latinx therapists, or who have experience with the unique needs of our population. 

Mental Health America’s Resources for Latinx/Hispanic Communities: Resources and materials in our language. 

If you want to help us, please come talk to us. Doing so will help you understand our needs and learn about our particularities when it comes to culture. Include us in your work teams, we can also help our own people. 

References

Latino | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Latinx-Hispanic

Spanish-speaking psychologists in demand. (n.d.). https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/06/spanish-speaking


Related Content:

Mental Health and Type 2 diabetes

Support from my Diabetes Care Team Helped Me Confront Trauma 

I Didn’t Beat Diabetes, I Fight with It 



Mariana Gómez

Mariana has a Degree in Psychology and a Diabetes Educator. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the 80's. In 2008, Mariana started a blog where she shares her life experience with others and topics related to life with diabetes and emotional health. Mariana worked for the Mexican Diabetes Federation until 2012 and today she is Project Manager at Beyond Type 1. She is the mother of a teenager.