What Therapist Christine Catipon Says to Filipino American Clients

Christine Catipon, a clinical psychologist at the UC Irvine Counseling Center, knows that Filipino Americans can find it difficult to find therapists who share the same cultural background.

“Not that being an empathetic therapist for someone is a necessary requirement,” she said. But when she can incorporate culture and history into therapy sessions, she finds that it often helps.

“My Filipino-American clients sometimes feel like they’re doing things on their own or seeing things in a very unique way that doesn’t allow them to understand,” she said.

Often many of these Filipino values ​​have been internalized, but their customers are unaware of them and how they might impact how they navigate the world, she said.

“So they say, ‘Oh, it’s me,’ when they’re actually saying, ‘No, it’s social and it’s cultural,'” she said.

Filipino Americans have reported a higher COVID-19 mental health fee than Asian Americans combined. What are some of the unique challenges Filipino Americans face when dealing with mental health issues?

Catipon, who is also Vice President of the Asian American Psychological Assn. is sharing her insights as part of the Times series on Filipino-American mental health, supported by the Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why can it be difficult for Filipino Americans to talk about mental health?

Part of this is that the Filipinos are a collectivist community. So there are many comparisons. That’s why everything we do reflects how other people see our family. And when we start talking about things that are wrong, it could say something negative about the family. Like “oh mom didn’t raise her right” or “dad wasn’t available” or something like that because a lot of those types of associations tend to be created within the community. And there could be a risk of losing face or embarrassment.

Then there’s the piece of mental health that carries such a negative stigma. You know, being a predominantly Catholic culture, I’ve found with my patients that a lot of their families don’t understand mental health issues because it’s a reflection of people not being holy enough and God not enough trust. you don’t pray enough What we psychiatrists say is, “It’s actually okay to talk about things.”

How can you ease the shame that comes with speaking out about mental health?

When I can, I connect the culture in a way that helps explain or validate their experiences rather than blaming them. “You’re not doing anything.” “You have to work harder.” “You can’t be lazy.” There’s just all this blaming that happens when people are in mental distress.

Also, our expression of emotions is not healthy, for lack of a better word. Filipinos can be very all or nothing I think with the expression of emotions. But if we avoid it, it stays in the body, it stays in the mind, and eventually it explodes. And when we learn as children that talking about feelings comes out as anger or intense expression, we won’t say anything. And that creates a minimization of feelings.

So what do we do with it? When people are willing to come to therapy and learn healthy ways to communicate and express their feelings, it removes some of the shame that comes with it.


Can you explain the term “smiling depression”?

The first time I saw it as a term was in Kevin Nadal’s Filipino American Psychology. This refers to Filipinos’ tendency to smile and say everything is fine when it isn’t. And yet this avoidance and pent-up of feelings leads to us becoming one of the demographics with the highest rates of depression because we don’t really acknowledge it or do anything about it.

Other communities do it too. You know, if you think about it, every time we ask someone how you’re doing — “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” when we’re not. And again, how much a collectivist aspect is related to where I don’t want to burden people with my problems; I don’t want them to feel like they have to take care of me? There’s so much of it that also has to do with not wanting to open up to friends and family. “I’ll charge them. You have enough stress on your own.” Well, I see that a lot. So, all of these factors contribute to smiling depression.

How can people be more proactive about their mental health?

I think we need to be more active. We can’t just understand why we feel the way we do. We have to say, “OK, now that I understand this, what am I going to do about it?”

And here’s the thing. Self-care is a very foreign concept to people in a collectivist society because we are not inherently individualistic. We tend to think of the whole. So I will not put my needs ahead of others.

So when I talk to people about self-care, they say, “What is this?” So part of the challenge is also to offer education that self-care is not selfish, but that self-care is actually self-honoring and self-nourishing so that you can be in the able to support people as you continue to do.

Because if you just keep giving, giving, giving, then you’re running on steam. So self-care is really important for us to be able to do the work we want to do and help others.


Clinical psychologist Christine Catipon talks about where to start with self-care.

What advice do you give to people who are unsure of where to start with self-care?

Sometimes when people get stuck, I ask them: what did you like to do as a kid? Did you like riding a bike? Did you like blowing bubbles? Did you like coloring? do you like journaling Did you like singing, playing the piano?

Because sometimes that gives us clues. Bring it back to what you enjoyed as a kid and do more of it. Because we often don’t have time to play. And I think play is still an important part of being an adult because we can get so stuck in our heads with responsibilities and chores and all that stuff. We need this creative outlet. We need those fun things to balance things out, and automatically it tends to improve people’s sanity just because they’re able to be authentic in what they enjoy.

Self-care also looks like sleep. Self-care looks like food. Self-care looks like exercise and taking your vitamins and the fun stuff. Basically, you charge and refill your battery so you can keep doing the things you do. And therapy is also self-care, to have a place to process your feelings – not to hold on to them and not let them drain you. So I look at it as a refill for all the things that naturally wear us out just from living our lives.


Clinical psychologist Christine Catipon offers advice for anyone struggling to talk about mental health with family members.

Do you have any advice for anyone who is struggling to talk about mental health with family members?

It really depends on the family. Despite everything I do, most of my family doesn’t understand what I’m doing and it’s been very challenging to have some of those conversations.

You need to find your community to talk to about it. In a way, not being able to have that in my family is almost like a chosen family for mental health support.

However, I think the pandemic has created a space for people to acknowledge that mental health issues are real, and I think the conversation has improved quite a bit.

So many people are talking about mental health that the experience is starting to normalize for people of color. And then we think of Stop AAPI Hate, I think over the last year, that’s been such a big chunk of people realizing, “Wow, that feels horrible to be singled out and afraid for my safety.” And this is happening in all Asian communities, not just East Asia. Filipinos were attacked, so it was a lot of us.

And before that, we held a community event for the Filipino community in Los Angeles, which was attended by over 400 people from the community. Every age. I was floored. I couldn’t believe that so many people, especially elders, would come to this and appreciate the importance of having these conversations. So I’m hopeful in the sense that it will come out.

And if it’s not something for us to talk about in our family, maybe talk to a priest, maybe talk to an indigenous healer, whatever feels authentic and supportive to you. I welcome all modalities. You need to know what works for you, and you may not know until you try.


Clinical psychologist Christine Catipon has advice for people labeled “overly sensitive.” What Therapist Christine Catipon Says to Filipino American Clients

Russell Falcon

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