Program Enables Undocumented Residents to Become Therapists

California is allowing people without full immigration status to earn a license and serve those in the shadows

Mental health therapist talks to client in group counseling session

When Mayra Barragan-O’Brien was 14 years old, she and her mother were smuggled across the US-Mexican border in a truck. What she remembers most about the 1,300-mile journey from Guadalajara was the sweltering heat. It was so hot that the bottom of her mother’s black tennis shoe melted from hiding underneath the backseat, and her mother fainted so often that Mayra lost count.

They were coming to America because the violence in their neighborhood had become life threatening. Her mother had applied unsuccessfully for a visa several times, and she felt she had no choice but to flee. So she hired a coyote to get them across the border in secret and on to a safer life in San Diego, where they would reunite with the other half of their family.

Looking back, she is now able to see her despair as a form of “immigration-related trauma — all of the experiences of being a newcomer in a world you don’t know,” she says. “A lot of people aren’t able to name that. ‘Why am I feeling sad? Why am I feeling anxious? Why am I feeling on edge? Why am I snapping for no reason?’ And it’s because of all the trauma that our bodies and our minds endure.”

Barragan-O’Brien’s insights fueled her desire to help others who’d been through the same traumatic experiences she had. She realized she might even have the skills to become a mental health healer and give back in some of the ways that her therapist had given to her. But there were some huge obstacles: as an undocumented person, it was hard enough for her to work legally. How could she ever hope to become a credentialed therapist, licensed by the state to do this work?

Indeed, for her and other undocumented people who want to address the mental health needs of their community, the route to becoming a licensed professional therapist is a hard one. But in California, it’s at least possible: in 2014, the state passed a law permitting undocumented residents to earn professional licenses, including as doctors and therapists. Nevada and Illinois followed suit in 2019.

Read the entire story at MindSite News.

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