At an age when most people are eyeing their 401(k)s and a hammock in the backyard, Lissette Mira-Amaya, 67, is still listening, caring and helping patients with their mental health, especially those who are immigrants and members of the Latino population.
Born in Nicaragua, Mira-Amaya came to the United States at 19 to attend college, landing at Western Michigan University, where she majored in psychology.
“I knew I wanted to study psychology since I was 12. I thought it was neat stuff, and I loved to learn and liked people,” say Mira-Amaya, who is a licensed master social worker (LMSW). “But after I thought about it, I realized I had an uncle who was schizophrenic or who they said was schizophrenic. I think he was probably bipolar, because he was able to stabilize for long periods of time and then he would have a crisis. I think that’s why I was interested.”
In addition to working for several local mental health agencies, Mira-Amaya has also been very involved with El Concilio, a nonprofit organization that serves Kalamazoo’s Latino community. She has been working with the organization as a board member from its inception in the 1980s (as the Hispanic American Council) and also providing counseling services through El Concilio.
How did you get where you are today?
In the early ’80s I was hired at the Douglass Community Center to work with the Marielitos — Cuban refugees from the Mariel boat lift — who had come here. Many of them were mentally ill, seriously mentally ill. My father was Cuban, so I knew not only Spanish but understood the Cuban culture. I got my social work license while there and was there for 24 years, becoming a regular therapist and then program manager.
I moved to Kalamazoo Community Mental Health, where I worked on inpatient foster care for mental health patients. I saw a cycle where people would get very ill, go to the state hospital, where they would stay for awhile, and then go to foster care. Then they would be released into an independent living situation and end up back at the state hospital and start the cycle again. We developed a program to teach these patients skills from coping to cooking and everything in between and how to become independent in and live in the community. We would have groups to talk about mental health and substance abuse and how to stay healthy. It was a very successful program, but it was expensive, so the agency cut it.
From there, I went to Family & Children Services, where my position was specifically to work with Latinos. I worked with children there but also with adults, which I did on my own time. I was there for four or five years and then went out on my own, but I wasn’t good at charging people.
Then I got a call from the Van Buren Intermediate School District about working as a therapist for middle and high school students for the school system. Initially I worked for schools in Hartford, where 50 percent of the kids are Latinos, and Bloomingdale, which is 40 percent Latino. Now I am just in Bloomingdale.
You are an advocate of mental health services within the Latino community. What are the particular challenges with mental health for Latinos?
There is a special spot in my heart for Latinos because there are hardly any Latino therapists here: me and Roberto Flachier, who hired me at the Douglass Center.
And this is a generalization, but Latino families want to take care of their problems at home, you know? It’s not because they think, ‘Oh, my God, you know, having mental health problems is terrible.’ It’s because they really want to show that they care about the members of their family. It’s a very strong value.
But it’s changing. The way we get connected to clinicians in my culture is through word-of-mouth. People tell others that they are seeing somebody who speaks the language and who is helping. I have found that if you help one kid, then that family helps the next family by telling them that they received help and it was good.
What are some of the barriers that Latinos faces when trying to access mental health?
Lack of insurance for one thing. Lots of them don’t have health insurance. And not having bilingual and bicultural clinicians is also a barrier. The system tries to do the best that it can, but you can’t do therapy through a translator.
A lot of people I see are poor and undocumented. There is a lot of trauma being an immigrant. Even if you come with papers, it is a huge change — you have to learn a whole new language, new culture, and adjustments in every way, from the food to learning public transportation.
You’ve noted there are few Spanish-speaking therapists in this area. How does that get rectified?
I am mentoring and supervising a number of people training to work in the field. My son asked me the other day, “Mom, when are you gonna retire?” I said, “I don’t know. I think I may never retire.” There is just a great need for Latino therapists.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity
This story is part of the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative’s Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative focused on mental health issues in our communities.