Campaign rhetoric 'impacts people's mental health'

Counseling professor says stress running high in marginalized communities

March 14, 2016

A wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Calls to deport anyone not here legally. Comments that besmirch Mexicans.

Such statements and generalizations have made headlines in recent years, and have even found their way into the political discourse of the presidential campaign. The drumbeat is resulting in growing anxiety among people in underrepresented and marginalized communities, says Diane Estrada, PhD, associate professor of counseling in the School of Education & Human Development.

In addition to her teaching and research at CU Denver, Estrada is a therapist for families and couples. About 40 percent of her clientele is Spanish-speaking only. “A lot of what we’re seeing in the mental health field are the stress factors impacting people’s mental health,” Estrada says. “I hear stories about how everyday interactions in the family are impacted by the fear of, ‘Will my partner come home tonight?’ or ‘Will a traffic stop mean they get deported this time?’”

Many of the families she counsels have already seen an undocumented family member deported, and the charged rhetoric of the presidential campaign only increases their stress, Estrada says. “There’s this notion of already feeling this marginalization: ‘We’re in fear, struggling to create a sense of belonging and fitting in, and now we see this strong rhetoric making headlines on a daily basis,’” she says. “They can’t help but think, ‘What does this mean? Does the person sitting next to me in class feel this way? Does my co-worker feel this way?’”

‘Healthy paranoia’

This “healthy paranoia” isn’t unwarranted, Estrada says, noting the persecution and even violence suffered by underrepresented populations throughout U.S. history. “It’s a constant fear,” she says, and children in particular become the victims of separation anxiety.

Estrada says her counseling practice and personal experience informs her research. Her main research interests are diversity and social justice issues in clinical supervision, counseling/therapy and institutional climate.

Estrada worked with Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, PhD, associate professor of counseling, and graduate assistant Marina Garcia on a qualitative research project looking at the “lived experiences of counseling students of color” on our campus. The pilot study results prompted members of the American Counseling Association to ask Estrada to do a similar study on a national level. Another of her studies is looking at the ways in which diversity factors are taken into consideration in clinical supervision conversations.

Estrada is also working on a research project with Counseling Program colleagues Robert Allan, PhD, Shruti Poulsen, PhD, and graduate assistant LaTrease Love that looks at supervisor and supervisee perceptions of addressing ethnic, gender and sexual-orientation issues in clinical supervision. Pilot study results were shared at last year’s American Family Therapy Academy Conference, and the study has been expanded to assess perceptions of these conversations across all CU counseling centers.

Polarized politics

Estrada recalls her own struggles to be taken seriously. She says that despite being an A-student at the University of Florida, she encountered a professor who was surprised by her desire to pursue a doctoral degree. Another eye-opening incident came during a gay pride parade in the Sunshine State. “The first time I faced the KKK was at this parade where I was supporting some of my friends,” she says. “Seeing that hatred in person was life-changing.”

She notes the polarized landscape is dominated by vocal people who represent roughly 20 percent of the electorate who hold extreme views. Even though the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Estrada says, members of this community still fight for equal rights at work, in housing and health care. “I see a lot of reactions” in the nation’s political environment, she says. “I don’t see a lot of ‘Let’s have a conversation (about various topics).’”

In February, Estrada was elected president of the Association of Multicultural Counseling and Development. She has been a faculty member in the Counseling Program since 2003; from 1999 to 2001 she served as director of the CU Denver Student and Community Counseling Center.

Estrada was born in San Francisco to a family that hails from Guatemala. She spent several years of her childhood living in Guatemala, and every other year she teaches at Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City.

The majority of her therapy clientele identifies as marginalized – either socio-economically or sexually. So, the current shifts in the political climate hit these groups hard, born out in worries about the welfare of themselves and their families.

“Any time our sense of safety is threatened, our anxiety goes up,” Estrada says. “And that affects our development as human beings.”