Degree In Sight

Nearly 47 million Hispanic people live in the United States, and by 2050, Hispanics will account for about 30 percent of U.S. residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

This growing population has unique mental health vulnerabilities. Latinos have high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, says Trina Dutta, PhD, a public health analyst with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Center for Mental Health Services. In just one alarming statistic, almost 19 percent of Latina teenagers attempted suicide at least once in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, more than 36 percent of Latinos lack health insurance, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

These facts haven't been lost on psychology educators, many of whom are pushing for doctoral programs to train the next generation of psychologists to meet the needs of this group. Encouraging multicultural training for psychology doctoral students was a top recommendation of APA's 1997 Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training in Psychology. Along with infusing training in multicultural concerns throughout programs, the commission urged programs to do more to recruit and retain ethnic-minority students and faculty members, says Bertha Holliday, PhD, senior director of APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs.

It's essential for psychology to adjust to that demographic shift, she says. "Clients will talk with their feet. If they don't feel comfortable with a provider because the provider doesn't quite understand their culture then they're going to go to another provider who does," she says.

Students, particularly undergraduates who want programs that stress multicultural training in Latino psychology, should join the National Latina/o Psychological Association, says NLPA president Edward Delgado-Romero, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Georgia. The organization's newsletter, available online at, is a great source of information for students, both for programs emphasizing training in cultural competence and individual faculty members renowned for their research with Latino communities, Delgado-Romero says. Members also get access to the NLPA listserv, which often includes discussions of programs that train students to work with Latino communities.

"A lot of it is word of mouth," he says.

Meanwhile, several psychology doctoral programs have adopted a variety of approaches to train students to meet the needs of Latinos, including:

  • Immersion study. Alliant International University's California School of Professional Psychology conducts a five-week summer immersion program at its Mexico City campus. For the first four weeks, students live with local families and attend classes on Latin American and liberation psychology. They also travel into the countryside and visit with indigenous healers to learn about traditional healing practices in a rural community, says professor Jason Platt, PhD, who leads the group. This year, his students also spent three days with children rescued from the streets of Veracruz by a Roman Catholic nun, who gives them a place to live and a chance to go to school. The children were hired to teach about Mexican culture and help his students practice their Spanish skills, and they got a chance to sightsee at the pyramids of Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.

  • Educational exchange. The University of Wisconsin–Madison's counseling psychology program has an exchange agreement with Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM) in Guatemala City this year. Through the program, doctoral students work with families, adults and children for a practicum experience at the university's community mental health clinic, and UFM exchange students will take doctoral-level courses in counseling psychology at the Madison campus.

  • Practicum and field site training. Students at Arizona State University don't have to travel far to work with Latinos. Census figures indicate that last year, 1.2 million Hispanics were living in Maricopa County, where the school makes its home. About 10 years ago, ASU's counseling psychology program made a commitment to better serve the region's growing Latino population. The program now encourages doctoral students to study Spanish and take courses on counseling Latinos and independent study on cultural competency. Those who take the course and speak Spanish may work with Latino clients at the university's community clinic onsite and at off-campus sites when Spanish-speaking, culturally competent supervisors are present, says professor Miguel Arciniega, PhD. Besides coursework and practicum, professors encourage student research on mental health issues affecting Latino communities, he says.

A similar approach to coursework and practicum is available to students at the University of Miami's department of educational and psychological studies in the School of Education, through a certificate in bilingual and bicultural counseling, says Margaret Crosbie-Burnett, PhD. The program's three main components include courses in "Professional Psychological Spanish" and "Psychological Interventions with Hispanic/Latino Populations," along with a practicum with supervision in Spanish, Crosbie-Burnett says. Most of the students are pursuing a master's in counseling, but doctoral students in the university's clinical psychology and counseling psychology programs also enroll. The faculty is working on a plan to open up the certificate program to students from outside the University of Miami.

"I've gotten calls from people at other universities asking about it, even though we don't advertise it; that tells me that we could make an even bigger contribution," she says.

  • Psychology classes in Spanish. At Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, students in the PsyD program who opt for the "Psychological Services for Spanish Speaking Populations" concentration take two courses primarily taught in Spanish, a cultural and language immersion course taught in Mexico and a course in Latino psychology, says Joan Biever, PhD, the program's director. "Our goal is to have our students think in Spanish throughout a psychotherapy session," she says.

  • Master's programs with a Latino focus. Last September, the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at John F. Kennedy University enrolled 20 students for a new master's in counseling psychology hosted at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, Calif. Students, who are starting field work at social service agencies and community mental health clinics serving a primarily Latino population, find an emphasis on Latino psychology and cultural competence woven through the coursework, says Theresa Raymer Wildt, the JFKU faculty member who coordinates the cohort.

For example, the program's family systems class focuses on cultural norms, and how problems are handled within the family, and not necessarily shared with outsiders, Wildt says.

"How do you work with a couple, or family, in the context of their own value systems and norms? And if a therapist is doing an assessment, what do they need to consider with issues of migration, and generational influences and acculturation?" she says.

  • Establishing academic centers. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology has launched a center for Latino psychology. Its mission is to train more mental health providers in the cultural competency skills they need to work effectively with Latino clients, to foster research on best practices for working with the population and to expand services for Latino communities. With a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, the center is building its Latino Mental Health Providers Network, which fosters networking with other service providers and enables community mental health staffers in the Chicago area to attend four continuing-education sessions on Latino mental health issues.

The center also offers a concentration in Latino psychology in its master's program in clinical counseling. Students take courses in Latino psychology issues and interventions, as well as a course in Spanish.

  • Integrated health care in Spanish. Using a grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the New Mexico State University counseling psychology program places students into health-care teams at the Memorial Medical Center family clinic in Las Cruces. Before adopting the team approach, the program noticed that Latino patients referred to psychology students for a behavioral health consultation wouldn't show up for appointments, says professor Luis Vazquez, PhD. Now, a physician who wants to refer a patient for a behavioral health assessment brings the patient to the student, he says. "They introduce our students as part of the team," he says.

The grant also supports a bilingual therapy course in which bilingual students learn assessment and therapy techniques in Spanish, he says. This December, for the first time, 12 students and an instructor will travel to Zacatecas, Mexico, for a two-week cultural and linguistic immersion program.

By Christopher Munsey
gradPSYCH Staff