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Researcher navigates the intersections of Latino culture and mental health

Sometimes, you don't even realize the roadblocks you face until you've passed them.

Looking back on her academic career, Cristalís Capielo (Ph.D. '16) now sees the holes placed in her path—an expectation that she and other native Puerto Ricans would not attend college, the difficulties of navigating college courses while still learning to master English, and the lack of Latino mentors throughout higher education, for starters.

But there also were opportunities placed along this path to help her avoid these pitfalls—including the fateful day when her mother, reading course descriptions from a catalog, said, "How about psychology?"

"I took a class that summer and fell in love," says Capielo, now an assistant professor at Arizona State University. After college, she worked as a substance abuse counselor and later received her master's degree—which got her thinking about a doctorate. But because of the clinical nature of her master's, she knew she needed more research experience.

When a position opened at the University of Miami studying Latinos who have depression and diabetes, Capielo jumped at the opportunity. Not only did it help her fall in love with research, but it also gave her insight into the mental health needs of the country's Latino population. And it brought her to the University of Georgia.

"When I was searching for graduate training, I knew I wanted to do work with Spanish-speaking Latinos and socio-cultural issues of mental health," says Capielo, who first met her advisor and College of Education professor Edward Delgado-Romero at a conference where she was presenting research from her position in Miami. "There are very few people who specialize in Latino psychology, and Ed had such a strong track record of doing that work."

The opportunity to study at UGA also helped fine-tune a topic Capielo discovered during her research. The more she learned about how mental health issues affected Puerto Ricans compared with other Latino groups, the more she realized there was a need to study this population. For example, people of Puerto Rican descent have higher rates of depression and anxiety compared with other Latino populations. Meeting Delgado-Romero sealed the deal to come to UGA. "Ed was the only person I met who was interested in Latino psychology and was Latino himself. It was an easy choice."

Today, Capielo is among the next generation of researchers at the forefront of Latino psychology. She is active in the leadership of the National Latina/o Psychological Association (NLPA) and her current research examines how Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S. mainland affects residents' sense of self—for example, can you be both American and Puerto Rican, and how does this compare with being Cuban or Mexican? Complicating this are the effects hurricane Maria now has on life on the island.

Ideally, answers will not only help future generations navigate their own paths, but also lead to a larger understanding of Latino culture and mental health.

"Latinos have been historically presented as, 'What is wrong with our community?'" she says. "And the difference in the work that Ed did, and we continue to do in NLPA, is saying no, our community is resilient."

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