An Impactful Journey: From Journalist to Mental Health Therapist —in Conversation with Cheryl Aguilar

A person with long dark hair smells sunflowers in a field of green


Cheryl Aguilar  is the founder and lead therapist of Hope Center for Wellness, a multicultural and bilingual mental health practice focused on holistic healing of individuals and communities. She works with youth, young adults, adults, and families, and she specializes in working with immigrants and refugees. Before embarking in social work, Cheryl worked in journalism, public relations, and community organizing for over a decade. She is a great communicator, using her talents, educational background, and personal experiences to empower and heal her clients and the community. 

Cheryl shares her personal story, why access to mental health for underserved communities is critical, and how her experience in communications has amplified the impact of her work with communities of color 


You were born in Honduras and moved here at a young age. Can you tell us about how those experiences have given shape to your career? 


I was 14 when I came to the United States and, at the time, I didn’t know what the immigration journey looked like. I was just excited to reunite with my mother and sisters who were already living here. I didn’t understand the challenges of being an immigrant until I was older. Looking back, I realize how hard it was to transition to a new place, learn a new language, and adjust to a new environment. When I was young, I couldn’t name those feelings and when I work with families who are separated now, I’m reminded of my own separation experience from my dad. It felt like my heart was split between two countries. 

I decided to study journalism because I was fascinated by how media works, an interest sparked by watching my dad in the media in Honduras and continued throughout my life. I noticed that the women on camera were beautiful but not always taken seriously, and I wanted to change what people saw in journalism, particularly women journalists. I also wanted to increase diversity in the media. 

After getting my degree, I landed a job at a local South Jersey newspaper as a reporter. My favorite part about the job was getting to know people and hearing their stories. They opened their doors and their hearts to me. I was so moved by the organizations that worked with the immigrant communities I wrote about that I started volunteering for the organizations. Unfortunately, this was seen as a conflict of interest, so I decided to find a new job that would allow me to do both – tell stories and make a difference. I moved into public relations for social justice nonprofits. 


What inspired your decision to move from the field of communications to become a mental health therapist?


In my PR role, I was asked to lead a public mental health awareness campaign called Puentes: Bridging Youth to Health Behaviors, to shed light on mental health challenges youth face and to advocate for more mental health services within a community in Maryland. During this campaign, I spent a lot of time teaching youth how to talk to media and legislators about their mental health stories. I built trusting relationships with the young people throughout this process and, as a result, many felt comfortable sharing very personal challenges. One young person told me that he was suicidal, a serious matter that left me frazzled not knowing what to say or do to help him. I connected him to a mental health counselor to help him navigate this challenge and continued to connect other youth with mental health resources. 

That experience with someone struggling with suicidal ideation was a defining moment for me. I was not equipped with the right words or tools to help; that is a situation I never wanted to be in. Looking into services for Spanish-speaking people showed that not many mental health providers speak Spanish and are culturally competent. This made me think more about my purpose in life, and if there was something else I could do for youth and others facing these challenges who do not have access to the right resources.  

At this point, I had been working in public relations for more than 10 years. While I was very scared to shift careers, I made the decision to go back to school to become a mental health psychotherapist. The first year out of my intensive Masters of Social Work program, I started to work as a psychotherapist. This was emotionally challenging. I felt depressed because of all the heartbreaking stories I was witnessing and how much was going on in our communities; I met kids as young as nine struggling with addiction. It gave me a front seat to their lives and how vulnerable our Latinx and immigrant communities are. There are a lot of challenges and very few healing opportunities.  

I didn’t stay depressed. I re-discovered the resilience and strength that immigrants have. Their ability to keep going despite the obstacles they face continues to be my inspiration. Hope was what brought them to ask for help and to be open to receive counseling for mental health. And hope is what continues to lead the way for many people who are suffering. 


Mental health challenges can be a taboo topic among Latinx communities, can you tell us about these misconceptions? 


The main misconception in the Latinx community is that mental health therapy is for “crazy” people. Fighting stigma takes educating the community on what mental health really is, providing people with examples of the feelings they experience, and understanding issues such as anxiety and stress. 

We also don’t discuss these types of issues outside of our home. We have a saying that applies to this: “los platos sucios se lavan en casa.Dirty dishes are washed at home. This means that anything negative happening at home cannot be shared with strangers.  

Additionally, and particularly for men, the fear of being perceived as weak or not strong enough to handle an issue dissuades people from asking for help. 

But I also have some good news: first generation immigrants – the children of immigrants – are more open to therapy and understand the importance of prioritizing their mental health because they have been influenced by the U.S. media and peers from other cultures and backgrounds. Unfortunately, finding someone who is bilingual, understands their culture/experience, and is affordable is difficult 


As a communicator, what are the tools that have helped you amplify the voices and issues of marginalized communities to improve their mental health? 


I use my skills as a communicator to write and share stories of mental health to fight the stigma of challenges in the Spanish-language media. Outside of sharing stories in traditional media outlets, I use social media mainly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – to disseminate messages of hope and inspiration with the community. The goal is to help individuals to get through the day or have access to simple tips that they can easily put into practice to be healthy. 

One of the ideas that has proven successful is doing live chats (panel style) on Facebook called Afrontando Juntos (Coping Together). This idea came about when the pandemic started. Every time we have a shared crisis, we see an increase of demand for services. I already knew that there were many people within the Latinx community that were suffering and didn’t have insurance or other ways to access mental health resources, so it made sense to create a space to provide support in Spanish to the community. The vision was for those that couldn’t get therapy at least could get some tools to cope with the crisis and share resources so anyone in need can connect with someone. 

For me, leading these chats was scary at first as I prefer to be behind the scenes but seeing the interest and the engagement from the community made those fears dissipate. We have people joining from all over the world depending on the topic and invited speaker. We try to answer as many questions as we can related to mental health and the pandemic. The recurring themes in these panels are how to deal with anxiety, help talking with children, supporting schoolwork, and loneliness. We will continue offering these panels as long as there is interest and need.  


Do you have any recommendations for communicators who want to amplify voices of people who have experienced trauma, and how can we best go about this without causing more trauma? 


The retraumatizing of sharing stories is very common, sometimes people think they are ready to share and when they are retelling their story, some questions from the interviewer might trigger negative memories and feelings that they didn’t expect. As a communicator, it is very important to be mindful of how much people want to share or are able to share; they might open up and then shut down. We need to allow them to stop and not try to get more information.  

I recommend asking the following questions: 

1. Are you ready to tell me your story?
2. Are you ready to share it with others?
3. Are you ready for people to comment on your stories once it’s published?
4. Do you have support to deal with negative comments?
5. Is it ok if I ask you about this? /Is this something you want to share?
6. We can stop sharing at any time

For journalists or communications people, make sure you let the person tell the story on their own terms as they likely have experienced a loss of control, and you want them to have the sense of control of their story and how it’s told. Make sure to validate what they are sharing and how they are feeling.  

When possible share the story with them before it is published and be prepared if they change their minds at the last minute. Respect their decision with no pressure or questions asked. 


The current political environment has been hard for communities of color. Can you talk about the accessibility of resources or the lack thereof?  


Communities of color are the most impacted by mental health challenges due to many factors such as mental health stigma, lack of culturally competent services, and lack of access to insurance. Immigrants who are undocumented are often uninsured and when they do have insurance, their insurance may not cover mental health services.  

On top of this, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and our political environment has caused heightened levels of anxiety and depression. People live in dire fear of family separation, deportation, discrimination, and racism. As a community, we must continue to advocate for mental health parity that supports all and provided services that are accessible. 


Any recommendations for communicators who want to use their talents to support healthier communities?  


Pitch and write stories about mental health. The more we debunk the myths about mental health, the more we shatter mental health stigma. 

Use personfirst language when referring to an individual impacted by mental health. That means separating the individual from the diagnosis. Describe mental health as an experience someone is going through, for example, use person experiencing depression vs depressed person.  


Tell us about your hobbies and how you relax on your free time? 


As someone who was been impacted by burnout, I work towards restorative practices on a daily basis. I start the day with a few minutes of deep breathing, prayer, and reading the news and then I build in small breaks during the day for walks, gardening, and drinking my favorite cup of tea in silence.  

One of the biggest misconceptions about self-care is that we need to wait until the weekend or until we go on vacation to recharge but waiting until a particular time limits our ability to replenish daily. I am always trying new hobbies and things that nurture my mind, body, and soul. Among some of my favorite hobbies are reading, cooking, making homemade candles, going on walks, spending time with family, and I am currently learning to play African Drums and piano. But my ultimate favorite hobby is relaxing in my hammock while reading a book and sipping some tea. 


Any tips for PR professionals, communicators, and social justice warriors who are feeling overwhelmed in these hectic times on might need a mental health break? 


Honor what your body and mind feel and take a break when you need it. Don’t wait until you are burned-out but build in ongoing wellness days whenever possible. We have a long road ahead of us for recovery after the pandemic and a long road to bring justice to many of the injustices we see. If we want to be in the social justice fight longterm or in our careers informing others, we need to sustain ourselves. When we are well, others around us can positively be impacted too. 


Thank you so much for your time, and all your generosity sharing your story and these great tips with us. 

About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

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