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Cultures turn to traditional ways to heal

Fellowship Story Showcase

Cultures turn to traditional ways to heal

Picture of Sharon Salyer

In this series, Sharon Salyer and Alejandro Domínguez collaborate to report on the mental health challenges faced by Hispanics.

Part 1: Alone among us

Part 2: Fear of "loco" label

Part 3: Cultures turn to traditional ways to heal

Part 4: Mental illness carries stigma among Asian cultures, too

The Herald & La Raza Noroeste
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

WENATCHEE -- Family counselor Jorge Ruiz Chacón follows an ancient path to healing.

From his grandmother, a curandera or natural healer, Chacón, 63, was taught that all illnesses are spiritual, a loss of hope and faith. At Western Washington University, he said, he learned the same techniques in college psychology courses that his grandmother taught him. He just learned them in a different way.

As a boy, Chacón, began learning the techniques of a curandero by accompanying his grandmother on visits to people who asked for her help. He is the third generation of curanderos in his family.

"Her teaching started with the very basics: how to sit, how to listen, how to be respectful, how to be nonjudgmental -- all those things we learned in college as a therapist or a counselor," he said. His grandmother also taught him it was important to spend time quietly by himself so that he might be better able to listen and be sensitive to those he wanted to help.

He decided to study counseling at college because he wanted to integrate his grandmother's teachings with mainstream psychology.

"There is too much to learn," he said. "The logical way to integrate them is to learn as much as possible about both concepts and theories."

In college he heard echoes of his grandmother's teachings in the writings of psychologists Carl Rogers and Carl Jung. She taught that individuals have the power to heal themselves. "Even in the domestic violence counseling that I do, the spirituality part is always there," Chacón said. "In everything I do, I combine the two worlds. It completes the picture for me."

Chacón has been counseling mostly Hispanic families in Chelan County since 1994 on issues such as family therapy, children's mental health, depression and anxiety.

As a curandero, the issues are often the same, he said, but these patients often trust him more quickly. "As a counselor, it takes more time to generate that trust."

In both roles, he tries to promote belief in the family, pride, and the value of respect, especially in Hispanic families. In American culture, behaviors rather than values are taught, Chacón said.

Sometimes he travels to West Seattle to provide curandero services to people who have come from Everett and Tacoma. In addition to his WWU degree, he's also a member of the state's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. Consejo Counseling and Referral Service, a Seattle-based nonprofit that serves Hispanics, has referred patients to him when he travels to Seattle. He sometimes is invited to speak to college students on his work blending patients' spiritual and psychological needs.

In following his grandmother's traditions, he believes that all illness is caused by not being able to come to terms with one's self and to not being at peace with one's self, Chacón said.

"Oftentimes, people I see are hopeless and helpless, they've stopped believing in themselves, losing that hope and faith," he said. "What I try to do is listen to them, because really that is an important medicine. You listen to what they're saying and be ready to use those strengths that they have."

The curandero uses an egg because of the power it holds as an image of a single-celled object. He passes the egg over the entire body and head three times. Sometimes it will crack, he says, becaes of the drawing out of energy from the body. (Dan Bates | The Herald)

Mind, body equally important

Many cultures have a tradition of natural healers such as curanderos.

They may conduct cleansing ceremonies using candles, incense, herbs, an egg or rock, said Dr. Mary Hardy, medical director of the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology in California.

Bringing in a traditional healer to talk to patients may be much more effective than simply handing them a prescription, said Dr. Roberta Lee, medical director for the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.

When people face fear, anxiety or loss, "we have always put faith in spiritual leaders or other people who aren't necessarily medical doctors," Lee said.

Cross-cultural medicine, or attempts to better treat the needs of immigrant patients by understanding their cultural practices, began in the late 1980s, Hardy said.

It came at a time of growing awareness of the potential for conflict between American doctors and immigrant patients, who sometimes have vastly different explanations for the causes of physical and mental illness.

One example is what is commonly called anxiety or depression but what Latin Americans sometimes call susto or fright, she said.

"It has almost a magical component to it," Hardy said. "There are things like this, that don't translate into Western diagnoses."

If the cultural aspects are ignored and patients are simply told "you're just depressed," the treatment is much less effective, Lee said.

Sea Mar Community Health Centers tries to blend both Western and traditional practices in treating patients, said Claudia D'Allegri, vice president of behavioral health. The nonprofit organization provides medical and mental health services in Western and Central Washington. It is open to any patient but specializes in serving Hispanics.

If patients are treated with Western medicine but they believe they need something else, "we kind of spin our wheels, they don't develop trust in us," she said. "You need to be able to respond to cultural needs to develop trust."

For instance, in Latin American cultures it's not uncommon for someone to say they have seen the spirit of someone who has died in their house, D'Allegri said. Without this cultural understanding, this person could be misdiagnosed as having psychotic symptoms, she said.

"A lot of that is based on cultural belief, when the spirit is not resting ... and coming to you for help for prayer or something else for them," she said.

"Sometimes you say, 'OK, let's talk about that. What did they tell you?' Just saying I think you're psychotic isn't going to help the problem."

What is taboo in one culture can be normal in another, Hardy said. "If you're not sensitive, you can't provide adequate treatment."

Healing requires participation by patients to make meaning out of whatever obstacles they face, Lee said.

"I think there's a great habit of professional people who want to just hand over a prescription, give them some psychology and call it a day instead of engaging the person in the process and giving them more of a sense of control that can change their lives," she said.

"We've gotten so mechanical about dealing with these things to the point that just by taking a medication, (we think) that would be enough," Lee said. "It's enough for numbing, but not enough for healing people."

(Dan Bates | The Herald)

Healers have their critics

Although some people say they've had good results after being treated by curanderos, traditional healers have been criticized for either slowing a patient's ultimate need for psychiatric treatment or being more interested in making money than healing patients.

Among the critics is Philip Leija, who has worked as a counselor for Sea Mar.

There is stigma and shame in the Hispanic community associated with mental health problems, he said. Whether it's depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, many families assume "we can take care of our own problems within the family," he said.

Family members with mental health issues often are kept hidden at home until they have a full-blown mental breakdown, he said.

Turning to a curandero is common, and far more acceptable, he said, but it can have tragic consequences.

Leija said a family member, who was a promising student, first began having bouts of serious depression and then began hearing voices when he was 18.

His parents sent him to live with his grandmother in Mexico, where he was seen by a curandero. Leija believes his condition worsened because he did not receive adequate mental health treatment. When he returned to United States he was hospitalized for depression and psychosis, Leija said.

The family member, now an adult, still lives at home. "He doesn't even take the bus," Leija said.

"If they had reached him before he got the break from reality when he was 18, he probably wouldn't be where he is today," he said. "Probably his mental illness would be stable."

Chacón said he doesn't hesitate to send someone to a psychiatrist if he thinks that medication could help. But herbs can also play a role in healing, he said.

Curanderos are often associated with superstition or black magic, he said, "but I know it is not."

True curanderos will not ask for money in advance for their services, he said. "A person who charges $500 for a job to me are fakes that are using the faith of the people. ... People are traumatized by those individuals."

Curanderos will accept whatever donation people offer, he said, whether it's a bag of apples, a banana or a dollar bill. Once he was even given a puppy.

"I have gone to houses where really I am not given anything material, but they gave me kindness, they accept me at their house. That is also a gift."

Jorge Chacón, a curandero in Wenatchee, holds copal, which he uses as incense during a ritual. (Dan Bates | The Herald)

Growing acceptance

The mind-body connection is increasingly accepted as a tool in treating medical problems. Mind-body advocate Dr. Andrew Weil is featured on national television broadcasts and his book tops best-seller lists. Everett's Providence Regional Cancer Partnership offers massage, acupuncture and art therapy as part of its integrative medicine program.

Yet mental health practitioners are still struggling to adopt and adapt to this concept, Chacón said, even though there's been talk about the need for a change for the last 15 to 20 years.

Curanderos approach their treatments from the holistic perspective, he said. "We know food is very important and we encourage individuals to ... take good care of themselves, even if they are poor, and to meditate, to pray."

He encourages patients to drink herbal teas, such as chamomile, or mint, "to return to the most basic things they can.

"That is the nature of the message that I try to give -- to do the things that are easy and simple and not to complicate their world."

Chacón said he enters a trancelike state when he conducts a healing.

He carries many of the tools used when working as a curandero in a small backpack: a drum, rattle, hawk and eagle feathers, shells and a cross representing Christian and other religious traditions.

The room is often lighted with candles, scented with incense, and sometimes he brings plants such as a Mexican orange or mint.

He said he talks to about 20 people a week about life's common problems, including divorce, depression, problems with sleeping, domestic violence, family matters, money woes.

"I don't heal, the Creator does," he said. "All I can give is a sense of peace."

"It might take time to heal and feel better, but what's important right now is to have peace here in your heart. You don't have to have that heaviness, that headache getting you down."

Reporter Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;
Reporter Alejandro Dominguez: 425-673-6632;