North Carolina, Raleigh — As a day of Telehealth therapy sessions winds to a close, therapist Verónica Pereira glances at the clock at the corner of her screen. She realizes she’s blown through her 5:30 p.m. deadline once again. It’s become an all-too easy habit when her home office is within sight of her living room and her clients are only a few keystrokes away.
Even with her tried and true self-care rituals in place, Pereira, like others who have transitioned to work from home, is finding that the line between work and life is more difficult than ever to establish.
In a line of work where professionals are taught to be mindful about their client relationship, however, the blurring of these boundaries poses a unique challenge for mental health therapists. For Latinx therapists in particular, the question of proximity extends beyond where they begin their workday.
Stephany Mejia, who also serves Latinx children and their families as a social worker and therapist, says that the shift to Teletherapy has deconstructed the long-held boundaries therapists have with their clients.
Whereas clients have traditionally known very little about the personal lives of their therapists, working from home has invited questions from her clients about her own life, Mejia said.
“It has been increasingly challenging, because there is no separation between work and one’s personal space or one’s personal life,” Mejia said. “There’s been more opportunity for curiosity from clients and their families of, ‘Where do you live? And what is your family like?’ because they’re getting more of that firsthand experience into your personal life.”
Pereira also notes that the challenges clients come to her with are no longer contained within the boundaries of the therapy session. “This is something that we are going through collectively,” she said. “It’s not an issue or something that a client is coming into my session, and I can disconnect from it in a way.”
According to data from the CDC, symptoms of anxiety disorder and depression have been consistently reported in higher rates among Latinos than non-Hispanic white populations during the pandemic. A Pew Research study also reported that about half of Latino adults say a family member or close friend has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19.
Pereira, who specializes in grief counseling and life transitions, acknowledges the all-encompassing nature of grief during the pandemic. “It’s not just the loss of a loved one,” she said. “It’s the loss of anything that is important to us. The inability to have a normal life.”
Many of these changes have come due to the distancing necessitated by the pandemic. Being away from loved ones, however, has long been a stressor among the immigrant Latinx population.
Kenneth Parmenter, a therapist with Vecinos Farmworker Health Program in western North Carolina, says that his clients have been forced away from their typical support networks to a greater degree than their migratory work usually requires. Latinx communities, Parmenter notes, rely heavily on familismo, a family-centered support structure in times of crisis.
“They’re away from home. They’ve traveled across the country. They’re in a new space with, for some of them, a bunch of new people that they don’t even know,” Parmenter said about his migrant farmworker clients.
For Pereira, the impact of distance is all too familiar. A Latina immigrant from Uruguay herself, she was the only member of her family to move to the United States.
She went two years without seeing her family before reuniting with them after a quarantine. She knows the fear her clients speak of when they wonder what will happen if a loved one falls ill, and they can’t make the trip home.
The distance has left her grieving the loss of loved ones thousands of miles away, even before COVID hardened those borders.
That inescapable personal connection and proximity to the issues has pushed Pereira and Latinx counselors like her to ask serious questions about the work they are engaged in.
During the pandemic, Pereira began her own private practice to meet the demands of Spanish-language grief counseling she saw among the Latinx community. She thought back to her own experience of losing her grandfather at seven years old and growing frustrated at the care her therapists provided.
“My mom remembers when I came out of that session,” Pereira said. “I was like, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I don’t like her. I just don’t want to do this anymore because she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t get what I’m going through. She doesn’t get how much pain there is.’”
As the necessary focus of her practice became increasingly clear during the pandemic, Pereira asked herself whether she would be able to care for her clients in the way she believes they deserve. Pereira now hopes to transform her newly founded clinic into a space modeled after the Bereavement Center of Texas where she previously worked and says she carries closely in her heart.
Mejia also found herself confronting questions about her work more directly than ever.
“So much about my field is about engaging with our humanity and about engaging with the humanity of others,” Mejia said. “I think it’s unfair to assume and to almost expect to just keep on moving forward with no regard to what we might be experiencing.”
In her work, Mejia draws deeply from her lived experience as a child who benefited from the support of social workers. The pandemic has motivated her to ask how pieces of her identity as a queer Latinx applies to the work she’s engaged in and how to implement her mission of justice and equity.
Pondering these questions, Mejia recalls the words of a colleague who said, “We are wounded healers.”
Those words affirm her belief that there is a reason to be found within her lived experience, and that of other therapists like herself, that reveals why they’re on the paths they are on. And though the pandemic may have raised old scars and opened new wounds, they continue to perform their healing work.
Kevin Gomez is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and Latina/o Studies. A first-generation Mexican-American from North Carolina, his stories primarily cover issues of labor in the American South and their intersections with class, race, and gender. Contact him at email@example.com