A Bilingual Therapist’s Call For Greater Access To Mental Healthcare

Aug 16, 2019

Finding the right therapist can be challenging. The search can be even more difficult for Spanish-speakers due to limited resources and cultural stigma. Our reporter Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez spoke with Frank Lemus, a bilingual licensed therapist in Reno, about these challenges. 

How severe is the ​shortage of bilingual providers?

I think it’s actually at a critical level. I think our population here in Washoe County has grown substantially, and we just don’t have the people who can actually, not just speak the language, because we have a lot of people who can actually speak the language, but then they don’t have the cultural competence that comes with it, so you miss a lot of stuff. 

At what point did you realize the Latinx community in Reno was in need of bilingual mental healthcare providers?

I have a really special client that sort of brought me into the fold because before I would not do therapy in Spanish because as my mother would say that I talk more like a Ranchero and it's not professional. I would always be afraid that it wasn’t enough, but after a while, like my first real Latino client said to me she didn't care, that I could make up words if I wanted to in Spanish, I could do anything I wanted to do, as long as I could really hear what it is she was struggling with and if I was really able to give her the interventions that she needed.

What’s at stake if someone who needs mental health care cannot receive it due to language access? What do the consequences look like?

An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in Dr. Lemus’ office. He says the local Latino community is in need of more bilingual mental healthcare resources.
Credit Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez

You see people who then don't have the coping devices necessarily to address the things that they really struggle with. Sometimes their only coping device is violence, sometimes the coping device is suicide, sometimes the coping device is just to escape and don't even be part of society, and not because the Latino population is a violent population. It’s just like any human being who feels like they’re against the wall--they’ll do what they need to to survive. It wouldn’t matter what culture you’re talking about.

What are some of the obstacles or challenges that hinder Latinx people from reaching out for mental healthcare, and do cultural norms play a role in those obstacles?

Most Latino families, just don’t have the financial means, and therapy is expensive. That financial structure is devastating for families when you have to choose to pay rent, buy food and do those kind of things, or you're going to go and talk to somebody for an hour.

Second is that in our culture, we’re taught not to go outside of our families, so what ends up happening when our family can’t help us, then we’re just kind of stuck. That’s one of the biggest obstacles, is that in Latino culture, therapy is almost like it's a bad thing for crazy people rather than a tool to get better.

Can you talk to me about the role representation plays in seeking mental healthcare. How important do you think it is to be able to find a therapist that looks like you, speaks like you, and understands your cultural background?

One of the things that I think they can sense is that I’ve walked in their shoes, I understand that life, and I can understand the thinking behind it. They see themselves. At least in the raw sense, they can picture me growing up as a Mexican kid and they can picture me struggling with the same things they struggled [with] as a kid and a young adult. They don’t feel themselves as different.

How busy are you? Do you ever have to turn patients away because you are at capacity for patients?

I think that part of what I find myself struggling with is that I know I need to take care of myself and a lot of times I won’t do that because I will have an overload of clients. I just feel guilty that I can't address them or I can't refer them out.

This story was produced in partnership with Noticiero Móvil, a bilingual multimedia outlet run by the Reynolds School of Journalism.