It’s increasingly common for Austin mental health professionals to serve children who are struggling with the fear of being deported or having their family torn apart over an immigration issue, whether or not their family is undocumented. With almost half of Austin’s population under 18 being Hispanic, there are many families out there contemplating similar fears.
“We’ve just been seeing a lot more fear and a general sense of unpredictability, which raises everybody’s anxiety level,” said Julia Hoke, director of psychological services for the Austin Child Guidance Center, a nonprofit that served almost 3,000 children and family members with mental health services in 2017. “We want to be a counterpoint to that.”
ACGC already serves the Hispanic and Spanish-speaking populations well, with about half of its clients being Hispanic and seven of its care providers being bilingual. In fact, Hoke manages the student training at ACGC and says the pipeline for new therapists is ripe with bilingual students. But language isn’t the only barrier therapists have to overcome when providing care for Hispanic families.
Renee Hanson Malone, director of development for ACGC, said, “Having any additional communication barriers for mental health services for parents and caregivers is not ideal and can cause more miscommunication during the therapeutic process. Culture is very much a part of one’s identity and even the perception of mental health services varies from culture to culture, even within Latin America.”
About six months ago, ACGC psychologist Jose Miranda noticed that other barriers were common with his Hispanic clients. He and his team would work with parents couldn’t read in either language, who held certain beliefs about cures, and who held onto a stigma about mental health. “I think there are some broader things all children experience,” said Miranda, “but also some specific things Spanish-speaking and Latino families need from therapy services, things that we need to be cognizant of.” That’s why he and other bilingual staff created a bilingual services task force to discuss these barriers and find or modify current treatments to address them.
Hispanic families also inquire about alternative treatments or how their faith could play a role. “I make it a practice to really talk openly about that,” said Miranda. “You have to be comfortable about being open to responding to those questions because if not, it’s going to be hard for them to open up to you.”
Aside from the cultural barriers, a major issue confronting the task force is the lack of evidence-based treatments known to address cultures with unique barriers. “Unfortunately the research has not been so culturally sensitive,” said Miranda. While evidence-based treatments might work on a general population, the field is in the early stages of studying their effectiveness on more narrow populations, adds Hoke. In the end, Malone says the task force is in line with the mission of ACGC. “It’s about lowering barriers and making all clients feel safe and accepted so they are actually able to heal and learn new tools to navigate through life’s obstacles.”