Mindpath Health’s Ana Ortiz-Lugo, PSY.D., HSP discusses the intersection of religion and Latinx mental health.
You can’t close out Latinx Heritage Month without acknowledging the significance of religion (usually Christianity) in Hispanic culture and community, but a Latinx individual’s personal relationship with religion can be complicated. This is especially true when it comes to conversations around mental health.
Spirituality can offer peace and emotional respite in many instances, but can also serve as a darker reminder of oppression and the remnants of settler colonialism. It’s important to consider both the positive and negative influences of religion when it comes to mental health because, in many cases, it’s tough to separate religion from culture.
Still, it’s possible to cultivate mindfulness around religion especially when it comes to treatment plans and equitable care that doesn’t involve shame or suppressing one’s feelings due to religious doctrine.
Religion Can Benefit Latinx Individuals
A clinical psychologist of a Latinx cultural background with Mindpath Health, Ana Ortiz-Lugo, PsyD, HSP, says, “When it comes to work with patients that are Latinx, religion can be a topic that promotes hope, and it speaks about working for the wellbeing of themselves and others.”
Some faith-based psychotherapists include the topic of religion and faith as part of their treatment plans, according to Ortiz-Lugo. “That said, there has been a great deal of debate regarding a faith-based treatment called conversion therapy, which is more about promoting the religious doctrine than working on a recovery process,” she says.
Ortiz-Lugo explains, “Loved ones can support folks that do not practice their beliefs by motivating them to seek out mental health services, being patient, and educating themselves about the psychotherapy process. It is about evidence-based research and the wellbeing of every unique individual looking for help to better their mental health.”
Personally, in her family, Ortiz-Lugo notes that faith is a very important topic. “Going to mass on Sundays was a family tradition for me, but when it comes to the treatment that I offer, I feel more comfortable leaving the topic of religion outside the therapy room,” she says.
Ortiz-Lugo prefers to focus on having a good, comprehensive, and evidence-based treatment plan that is targeted to the patient’s needs, rather than concentrating on religion as a therapist. “The psychotherapy process is about working the inner self, and religion can be a complement to that if the patient wants to talk about it, but shouldn’t be something that is enforced,” she says.
Pros and Cons Always Abound with Religion
Founder of Estoy Aqui and public health expert, Ysabel Garcia, MPH, says, “Religion can be a sensitive topic for many members of Latine communities.”
Garcia explains, “When it comes to the use of religion for mental health support, I hold multiple truths, rather than rely on binary concepts of good or bad. For example, religion can be a source of community care for many Latinx individuals, as the congregation may be emotionally supportive and scriptures may ground them.”
Yet, in terms of its risks, Garcia notes that suicide is often considered a sin. “When I shared with my family that I had thoughts of suicide, one of their responses was that my thoughts came from the devil or a bad spirit. Even though I respected their perspective, it was their roughness when telling me about prayer and church being the solution that pushed me away. The issue itself is not the religious belief but how the solutions influenced by the religious belief are enforced without consent or boundaries. There is a lack of compassion towards loved ones that can result from it,” she says.
By this, Garcia explains that religion may offer protection to some, but highlights that the impact of religion on mental health may depend on the person’s values and understanding of oppression. “For instance, while I believe that abortion is healthcare and that LGBTQIA+ identities are valid, others who practice certain religions may consider those beliefs to be sinful,” she says.
As Garcia thinks back to a conversation with her aunt in the past, she notes being told that the woman should always follow the man, and be submissive, based on the Christian scriptures. “Based on what I have been offered by Christianity and Catholicism, the practice of a religion does not feel like a good fit for me,” she says.
Garcia highlights, “Despite my personal conflict of values with religion, I understand how it can be a source of mental health support for some members of the Latine community. My Dominican mother looks forward to her bible study group because she gains a sense of hope when reading the scriptures and likes to connect with her church members or ‘siblings’ as she calls them. Looking forward to something, believing that there is a bigger purpose on this earth, and being with people who believe what you believe in and share your reality is all suicide prevention. For those reasons, I don’t want to stigmatize the practice of religion as a form of support.”
Despite her complicated views on religion, Garcia notes she created a responder training and outreach program called La Cultura Sana, which means, “The Culture Cures,” and calls specific community members, “cultural responders” due to their central role in mental health support, which includes hairstylists, herbalists, and even pastors.
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