Cheryl Aguilar: Providing Mental Health Support to Families with Immigration Trauma

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Immigration is difficult and often traumatic.

People who immigrate to the U.S. often face a dangerous journey only to be met with aggression and xenophobia at the border. It can lead to loss of hope, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Cheryl Aguilar wants to help families experiencing the trauma of immigration and adjusting to new life in the U.S. Aguilar immigrated from Honduras as a teenager, an experience that helped guide her to give back to immigrant communities.

Aguilar is a clinical social worker and founding director and therapist at the Hope Center for Wellness.

“As a therapist, one of the things that I do is help individuals, families, and communities heal from whatever distress, trauma, or experiences they might have encountered. I believe in holistic healing, which is connecting the mind, body, and spirit in our endeavor to grow, in our endeavor to undo patterns or behaviors that we no longer want, and in our endeavor to heal from past experiences.”

Although her work is difficult, Aguilar pushes forward because she wants to make a difference in helping someone see the light.

Working as a Therapist with the Latino Community

Aguilar became interested in therapy after her job in communications led to working on a mental health awareness campaign.

“I came to this work doing while I was working on a mental health awareness campaign, to bring attention to the mental challenges that immigrant youth were facing in one of our local communities. And as part of that work, I became really familiar with the stories that the youth have to share. Because we spent a lot of time together, they started to share more of their personal stories,” Aguilar said.

For the campaign, she spoke with a student who shared their struggles with suicidal thoughts. Aguilar knew she wanted to help.

cheryl aguilar immigration trauma

“After I learned the story of a young person who shared, they wanted to kill themselves at a very young age, I was really impacted by that,” Aguilar said. “I started thinking, how can I be a part of that solution that we’re seeking, in this particular county where we’re looking to bring more services to young immigrants?”

The experience spurred Aguilar to pursue a master’s degree in social work in 2012. She wanted to help fill a need for diverse mental healthcare providers.

“That’s kind of what inspired me to do this work having learned about what keeps young people from coming to therapy and also understanding the barriers. Part of the barrier is that we don’t have enough providers to work with certain communities, like in the Latinx community. We don’t have enough bilingual and culturally competent providers to work with that community,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar has worked in the D.C. metro area in various mental health services.

She was a bilingual mental health therapist at La Clinica del Pueblo, working on expanding access to mental health care for Spanish speakers through TeleMental Health. She also worked at the D.C. Latin American Youth Center, the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center, and the Prince George’s County Health Department.

Founding Hope Center for Wellness

In 2017, Aguilar founded Hope Center for Wellness, a multicultural and bilingual mental health practice in Washington, D.C.

After several years of working various roles at service-based organizations in the D.C. metro area, Aguilar recognized the need for an organization that focuses on holistic healing through a multicultural lens, making it easier to reach underserved communities.

“We serve people from all walks of life, but I specialize in working with immigrants and refugees. People who are in the area can receive mental health therapy and I also work with communities across the nation in a different capacity by supporting the organizations that serve them,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar has a team of five at Hope Center for Wellness, with four other therapists and counselors and an artist that helps facilitate group classes.

cheryl aguilar immigration trauma

The Hope Center for Wellness conducts trainings with schools, organizations, and agency companies about cultural competence work with Latino immigrants on topics such as trauma-informed teaching, emotions and politics, and family reunification.

Aguilar wants to help immigrants through a holistic approach to therapy.

“When it comes to the health of immigrant youth and the health of immigrants, we have to really work on understanding how people may experience situations with being an immigrant in a new country,” Aguilar said. “What are some of the factors that lead to their distress? What are some of the things that we can do as a community to alleviate those factors?”

Working with Seneca and Immigration Trauma

Aguilar’s work with Latino immigrants has expanded in the last few years.

The U.S. is home to 44 million immigrants. Most immigrants are Latino. And living in fear is the norm for many Latinos in the U.S., including those who are undocumented or living in the country as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

That is why Aguilar helped co-author a 10-step manual to help DACA recipients heal from anxiety related to their immigration status.

“In this dire time, when DACA recipients and the immigrant community is experiencing heightened anxiety, depression and reliving past traumas, we want everyone in need of support to receive it,” she said.

The manual helped spread the word about the Hope Center for Wellness, leading other immigration-oriented organizations to pick up on their work.

One new collaborator is the Seneca Family of Agencies, which aims to help children and families with mental health, education, and seeking justice.

“Earlier in September, I was reached out by Seneca to explore a partnership to be able to support the young children who have been separated from their parents when they arrived through the border,” Aguilar said.

Seneca’s Todo Por Mi Familia initiative aims to provide free mental health services to immigrant families forcibly separated at the border. Aguilar has partnered with Seneca to help with the Todo Por Mi Familia initiative.

“To support the young children within this area, we have been doing that work, with another provider and other therapists, in helping the young people start healing from their trauma. We’re providing individual therapy for the children and for the parents. Sometimes we see the children from the same families in groups and we’re going to start a support group for the parents early [this] year,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar has seen firsthand how harsh immigration policies in the U.S. have harmed immigrant children.

cheryl aguilar immigration trauma

“We’ve done great harm to these children. And by we, I mean the administration that put forth the zero-tolerance plan,” Aguilar said.

In 2018, President Trump announced a family separation policy with a “zero tolerance” plan to discourage illegal immigration. The policy allowed for federal authorities to separate children and parents who entered the border together. The adults were jailed or deported, and the children were placed in separate detention centers.

After much international criticism, Trump wrote an executive order to end the policy. The zero-tolerance plan only lasted a few months, yet still tore apart more than a thousand families.

“Their lives have been marked with trauma and they’re at an early age where we can start doing that work to help them heal, but nonetheless it’s traumatic and impactful in their lives. What they went through at the border when they were separated from their parents has left really deep wounds and really deep marks in their lives,” Aguilar said.

Much of Aguilar’s work revolves around facilitating the healing process.

“We are basically helping families and children be able to trust again, be able to feel safe again, in an environment that felt unwelcome to them. We’re helping parents deal with the trauma and the behavioral consequences that they see in their children because of the trauma,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar is driven by the possibility of positive change.

“I believe all of us are a work in progress. And I really believe that with the right support, people can really heal their scars,” Aguilar said. “I think that’s what motivates me — knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, knowing that people can go from not enjoying life to truly enjoying life, knowing that people can go from low self-esteem to truly learning to love themselves and embracing who they are, knowing that people can go from suicidal ideation to graduating high school and college and being the productive adults they want to be.”

Fighting the Stigma of Mental Health

One of the difficult parts of a career in mental health is dealing with the stigma around seeking help.

Although it’s improved in the last few years, the stigma still exists.

“There’s a certain stigma around mental health. We’re seeing a little bit of a decrease based on the community, the population that you are working with, or the age,” Aguilar said. “I think it’s typically the children of other generations that are coming to therapy. We’re seeing a rise of young millennial women coming to therapy and we’re seeing a rise of second-generation immigrants coming to therapy.”

It may be more common for people in the Latino community to seek help among themselves, says Aguilar. For example, fewer Latino parents reported that their child had ever used professional mental health care services (8%) than white children (14%), according to a 2017 Salud America! research review.

cheryl aguilar immigration trauma

“There’s a culture of privacy and secrecy in some of our communities. They get upheld generation to generation, or they may have alternative healing support that they seek, like going to church, or going to their priests, or other alternative routes,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar is happy to see more people show up for therapy as seeking mental health services is becoming normalized.

“We are seeing a lot more people coming to services and that has a lot to do also with public awareness. I think there’s bigger efforts underway to make sure that we are getting information out to communities. We are teaching people about what therapy is and what therapy is not, what mental health is and is not,” Aguilar said.

The Future for the Hope Center

What awaits Aguilar and the Hope Center for Wellness in the future?

Continuing to meet the needs of her community.

“We need to continue to figure out what the need is within the community and to be able to fulfill that need. So as a practice owner, I’m always trying to listen to what is needed. And I’m always trying to figure out how do we fill that void, whether it’s me and my practice, whether it is through partnerships or coalition work. What I see happening in the next few years is continuing to be attentive to what’s needed, like healing for immigrant children and their families and continue to work towards being a part of that solution,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar wants to encourage more people to pursue a career in mental health, especially people who are multilingual and culturally competent.

“We need a lot more mental health providers. This is a call to action to every young person who’s considering going to college or any young person in middle school or high school thinking about their next career,” Aguilar said.

“Being a mental health professional is a very fulfilling profession. We’re able to help people beyond our wildest dreams. We need you and we certainly need people who are bilingual and multilingual and who understand the communities that we’re serving.”

By The Numbers By The Numbers

22

percent

of Latino youth have depressive symptoms, more than any other group besides Native American youth

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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