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Organización Latino-Americana Mental Health Workshops Help Calm Fears In Latino Community

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Amanda Bernocco

With markers in her tiny hands and creative juices flowing through her veins, a young girl began drawing a picture of herself dressed as a superhero.

In her drawing, she had long brown hair and wore an orange mask hiding her identity. A thought bubble defined the girl’s mission: “Time to save the world.”

The girl drew the picture while sitting inside the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton last month, during a mental health workshop sponsored by the nonprofit Organización Latino-Americana, or OLA. The workshop, called Circulos de Fuerza (“Circles of Strength”), was conducted by three local licensed social workers to help soothe increasing levels of fear and anxiety within the Spanish-speaking community, particularly due to fears related to a stepped-up intensity of immigration enforcement.

Bryony Freij, a social worker at East End Pediatrics in East Hampton, one of the medical professionals at the workshop, said the superhero drawing is one of her favorite exercises to do with children facing anxiety. The exercise is simple: Ms. Freij instructs the children to think about what their life would be like if they were a superhero. What would their superpowers be? What would people call them? Then they draw the image.

The young girl, whom Ms. Freij did not identify because of the sensitive nature of the workshop, knew exactly what her superhero identity would be. Her name would be “Super Cool Rock Girl,” and her superpower would be to “see the future.”

In the picture, she wears a green shirt with a red heart on it, paired with an orange skirt and purple cape.

The girl took the picture home with her and was instructed to hang it next to her mirror so she can look at it every morning.

“It’s just getting them to start off their day by letting them find their inner strength,” Ms. Freij said.

At work, Ms. Freij said she has been seeing increased levels of stress in children—especially since January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office, and it was uncertain how tough his crackdown on immigration policies would be.

She recalled one scenario in which a 6-year-old told her he thought Mr. Trump would take his parents away. Multiple children have told her they fear going to school because they don’t want their parents to be deported when they are gone. She said she has two patients who become “completely terrified” when they are in the car and see the flashing lights of a police car.

“These are real fears,” Ms. Freij said.

In fact, children appear to be worrying so much that Ms. Freij said she is seeing an increase in anxiety symptoms among those she sees in her office: frequent nightmares, worries about going to school, stomachaches, headaches, a lot of crying and a loss of appetite.

While sometimes it’s necessary to get professional help, there are steps Ms. Freij said parents can take to lessen a child’s anxiety at home. The biggest culprit, she said, is television news, to which she recommends limited exposure.

“Kids get little snippets, and it turns to a big, scary world,” Ms. Freij said of children watching the news.

Additionally, she said parents should encourage physical exercise, do breathing exercises as a family, and to talk to their children. She said parents should honestly answer children’s questions about immigration in a calm and factual manner.

“I think ‘We’ll get through this together’ is an important thing for kids to hear from their family members,” Ms. Freij said.

Social workers Carolina Agudelo and Oscar Mandes, who also helped run exercises during the mental health workshop, could not be reached for comment this week.

Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana, said the April workshop, which was free to participants, was attended by 57 parents and children. She said this week that she is looking forward to running more workshops.

“We received additional funding to continue these workshops,” Ms. Perez said in an email last week. “We are hoping to take them on the road to better reach communities impacted by lack of transportation and increased isolation.” However, no dates for future workshops were set as of this week.

Ms. Perez said the exercises for adults during last month’s workshop were also effective. She recalled an exercise where blindfolded adults waited to be carefully led by a partner through an obstacle course. The objective was to see what it feels like to put trust in one another and what it feels like to take responsibility for the care of one another.

“There is laughter and smiles and play,” Ms. Perez said of the exercise. “This is an adult activity to remind us to not miss out on play while we navigate dire issues related to trust and how best to help those around us.”

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