Faith in Therapy

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Maybe if she would have learned to deal with things better she wouldn’t be depressed.
Maybe if she was stronger she wouldn’t be depressed.
Maybe if she would just stop being depressed she wouldn’t be depressed!

Let’s face it, therapy or counseling isn’t the first thing most Latina/os seek when they need emotional help. In a previous article, I commented on how Puerto Ricans suffer from mental illness (i.e., depression and substance abuse) more than any other Latina/o ethnicity. Research also indicates that Puerto Ricans underutilize mental health services more than other Latina/o group. So it is not only uncommon to instead confide one’s problems with close family and as well as spiritual leaders, like padres, reverends, curandera/os, or santera/os.

faith-therapy-MediumGiven the understanding that mental health is a stinging stigma in our communities, it is very important for mental health providers to incorporate as much of their client’s value systems into therapy. This helps to validate each individual’s experience and customizes therapy/ counseling to meet their needs. It is also important for mental health service seekers to carefully select a culturally competent therapist/ counselor and understand their power as a client to shape their own treatment process.

With that said, therapy cannot be successful without faith. There needs to be faith that this will work or help. There has to be faith that things will get better or that things will change. Faith is a necessity in therapy. Now how can faith practices be incorporated throughout treatment varies on the individual. In the past, spirituality was one of the least concerning element in therapy. In fact, psychologist hold a bad rep for misdiagnosing individuals with severe mental disorders (i.e. Schizophrenia) due to lack of understanding cultural differences, such as hearing the voices or feeling the presence of a close deceased relative.

With the growing Latina/o population trend, the psychology field has taken a drastic multicultural transformation, complicating the traditional mental health techniques that were designed from and for Anglo/ White people. Therapists and counselors today have to be mindful and culturally competent of the diverse populations and their common practices to have an idea of how to provide meaningful services.

To do so, there needs to be an understanding of the various cultural values of and the fact that the majority of Latina/os, especially Puerto Ricans, are connected to faith-based practices.

Spirituality and faith have always been the “go-to” when something goes wrong in our lives; screaming out “Oh God” or “Ay Dios mío” becomes automatic in many situations. During these times, finding faith can be challenging and seeking help can be draining. Research shows that Latina/os will weigh out all other options before seeking therapy.

And if you are one of the 90% of Puerto Ricans who grew up Catholic and going through tough times, there may have been a heavy emphasis on suffering and sacrifice. And when asked if you’ll ever get through it you might of responded with “Pue’, si Dio’ quiere,” as if this is supposed to happen and it’s uncontrollable. What is often undermined in the many Christian faiths is the lack of emphasis on human control and will. The power is on God and the person is left with no responsibility.

Individuals who hold these values going into therapy should be asked by their counselors to evaluate their faith and the frequency and efficacy of their practices in an effort to understand their strengths, coping patterns, and frames of reference. This helps the mental health provider shape the treatment and helps the person seeking treatment to gain control of their progress. For example, prayer or meditation is one of the most common relaxation techniques used in the field to help people cope with depression and anxiety.

If someone used to attend mass or pray frequently and within the past couple weeks they haven’t felt up to doing much of anything, a recommendation in treatment might begin with prescribing your current strengths and to do things that you used to enjoy. An example might be to return to a mass one time this week or pray or meditate 2-3 times a week. In therapy you want to start with what you know. It may sound silly because, why would you be in therapy if you’ve already tried everything? But, sometimes the simplest or most pleasurable things are forgotten or overlooked when your mood changes significantly and you have excessive worry throughout your day. Therapy should be small progressive steps.

Religion or spirituality can be therapeutic within itself. Studies have shown that those who attend church or spiritual rituals regularly tend to have less mental health issues. It could be the connection to others, leadership, inspirational messages, etc, but what it all comes down to is that religion and spirituality provides people with hope. Hope and faith that things will be ok, if you believe. Therapy works in a similar way for individuals and for many, it’s a source of support through the “how to deal” process. Spiritual leaders can be a great compliment to therapy because they can help guide individuals through their spiritual journey. Therapists on the other hand, are trained to work with you on your terms and they are also equipped with strategies that are beneficial for specific mental illnesses. Moreover, both processes require faith and responsibility.

Mental illness can be just as debilitating as a physical illness, and although prayer is a helpful way to build faith, it is not the only solution. There needs to be self-evaluation and exploration as to how things came to be, and also the changes that may need to occur to see progress. Good spiritual leaders and therapists can provide you with tools and work with you as a member of your team, but it is the responsibility of the individual to do their part to see the best results. Faith helps build strength and with great faith comes the responsibility to maintain it.

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Dorian Ortega

Dorian is a co-founder of La Respuesta and a Puerto Rican female who was born in Chicago. Her paternal and maternal grandparents immigrated to Chicago in the 1960's from Cayey, Comerío, and Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. She's worked as a research assistant on projects related to minority health, specifically Puerto Rican children with asthma. She's been a part of a faith community since birth and is an active member of Primera Iglesia Congregacional de Chicago. The church has historically supported the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners and was home to Rev. Jose "Viejo" Torres and his wife Alejandrina Torres, a former political prisoner. Dorian graduated from a Master's program in Clinical Counseling with a specialization in Latino/a mental health. Her interests are in feminist and multicultural psychology, Puerto Rican mental health, and racism within the Diaspora. 


  2 comments for “Faith in Therapy

  1. Yuisa
    October 23, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Dorian, I’d like to connect with you on Facebook. We have similar backgrounds and I have written a few pieces that I’d like to share with you. Thank you in advance for your consideration to connect.

    • Dorian Ortega
      October 24, 2013 at 9:22 am

      Hello Yuisa!Thank you for reaching out to me. I would love to read some of your work. Please feel free to connect with me via email,

      Much love.

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