Mi fe y mi Salud Mental

Why School Based Mental Health providers can no longer ignore the role faith, religion, and spirituality have in the Latinx student community and their mental health treatment.”

Martha Rodriguez, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

University of South Florida

Ohio - Jaime Torres a bright, timid, high school senior has been seeing his School Social Worker, Theresa Jones for individual and family therapy for some time now. Jaime struggled for several years with feelings of hopelessness, and panic attacks. It started with palpitations, night sweats, and a feeling like the room was spinning out of control. Jaime also began to experience a sense of desperation, sadness, and hopelessness. He could not take control of his thoughts and started to struggle with suicide ideation. Jaime knew something was wrong and needed help.

Yet Mr. Torres was concerned with his parent’s reactions and responses concerning therapy, therefore he chose to not share his decision to engage in psychotherapy at school with anyone at first. Jaime’s parents did not agree with him engaging in therapy, especially his father David Torres. Mr. Torres would often say to Jaime, “tu no eres loco”, “you need to be strong”, “los hombres no lloran”, and “don’t you have faith?” David argued with Jaime that; his faith and religion should be enough to help him get through his struggles with mental illness.

Unfortunately for Jaime these attitudes regarding men and mental health are common in the Latinx community. Jaime also received negative feedback from some of his uncles and family members about seeking help for mental illness which validated his concerns about sharing his decision to engage in treatment with his family.

Mr. Torres friends at church also agreed that maybe he needed to work on strengthening his faith and should hold off from seeking any treatment, perpetuating the idea that lack of faith is what leads to mental disorders. But Jaime disagreed and sought out treatment. He found the help he needed in Theresa his School Social Worker, who was able to integrate Jaime’s faith into his treatment.

Jaime never imagined being able to share the struggles confusion, and guilt, associated with his illness, faith, & religion. Guided by Mr. Torres, Theresa had conversations about how these extremely important determinants affected all aspects of Mr. Torres health including his mental health and mental illness. Mrs. Jones treatment plan included an assessment of Jaime’s faith, spirituality & religion. Theresa was aware of the beliefs shared by the Latinx community regarding cultural and religious values. The Research demonstrating the “Latinx community utilize mental health care at a rate that is about half that of non-Hispanic Whites.”

Mrs. Jones was sensitive to the Latinx community beliefs and attitudes surrounding mental health which are complex and often misunderstood. She educated herself on religion, faith, and spirituality serving as strong protective factors for the Latinx community, as well the possibility that men share negative perceptions about discussing mental health conditions and seeking treatment. As a result, the Latinx community and Latinx students are struggling with mental illness at alarming rates; many failing to receive treatment because of their religious and cultural values.

Mr. Torres is one of the lucky ones, who received treatment because of Mrs. Jones competency in the perception and values of this community in relation to their religion and faith. Unfortunately, many school based mental health professionals fail to address these values and their contribution to the stigma against mental disorders that contribute to mental health care utilization disparities that currently exist.

Jaime hopes school based mental health providers will increase efforts aimed at raising awareness, on the need for competency in integrating faith, religion, and spirituality in treatment in an ethical manner. Mrs. Jones believes this is one of the many ways to make strides in combining faith and psychotherapy.

Mr. Torres questioned; If his faith is such a significant part of his life, why would it not be addressed in his mental health treatment? Why are people so afraid to talk about faith, religion, or spirituality? For us “Latinos our faith can define how we see the world, for many of us it is everything.” Everyone is talking about mental health, everywhere he goes Jaime reads, sees, or listens to someone at school talking about the importance of seeking help. He feels however schools need to do a better job at understanding the whole student. School Mental Health staff should be able to apply every aspect of our lives to our illness. According to Jaime, “all they do is talk about it, but can they try to figure out why we are not engaging in treatment?”

While Jaime makes an excellent point, school mental health staff often struggle with the dilemma of how to incorporate faith and therapy. Why should schools even consider this, when everyone is so scared of being sued or facing legal action?

To consider Jaime’s needs school based mental health professionals will have to figure out how to address the ethical and legal requirements involved in this work. Hence this sensitive and perhaps complex effort school based mental health professionals may choose to not address spirituality, faith, or religion. It makes perfect sense why we lack research and actions towards school-based curriculums to support school based mental health professionals.

In New York City, Teachers like Leidy Garay explained that educators and school based mental health staff, as well as administrators are aware religions cannot be forcibly practiced in any public school. Mrs. Garay however believes all students should still have the right to practice their personal beliefs. She has worked alongside school Social Workers, and school Counselors, to become sensitive to her students and families spiritual and religious beliefs. Leidy a Special Education Teacher with over 15years of experience recognizes how faith, spirituality, and religion can provide protective factors for mental health.

Mrs. Garay believes Latinx students like Jaime exist all over the world. Leidy is correct, as Latinx students struggle with thoughts of suicide up to 8 times higher than their peers. The numbers just keep rising for mental health issues as well as serious mental illness, suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts. Not to mention that Latinx students are more inclined to mental anguish associated with trauma due to immigration and acculturation.