Paulita Lasola Malay
Licensed Marriage Family Therapist
Articles featuring Paulita
Domestic Violence and the Filipino Community by Shelene Atanacio, Filipina Women Against Violence
Serendipity by Paulita Lasola Malay, MFT, May 2, 2009
From Darkness to Enlightenment by Philip Andres, April 27, 2009
All in the Mind
Everybody has problems, Filipinos included. And that's precisely why these psychotherapists are there to listen.
When Filipinos nurse broken hearts, they might tell their siblings or their buddies. They may try to soothe the pain with various distractions like partying, shopping or traveling. But spill their woes to a stranger? Unlikely. Even if the stranger happens to be a professional, is licensed to listen, asks the right questions and devises a plan that could help bring healing.
So why does Dr. Jei Africa keep striving for visibility in her home community?
Africa and the few other Filipino psychotherapists in California believe there is a niche they can fill naturally. Statistics suggest that the community is facing huge mental health issues: the large percentage of domestic violence survivors in San Francisco (40 percent, according to the Filipina Women's Network) and San Mateo County (10 percent, in records culled by CORA, Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse) highlight the need for counseling. Then there are the struggles with substance abuse, anger, depression, anxiety, adjustment and stress that Filipinos, newly arrived or born here, have in common with everyone else.
"I want to be a significant contributor to the well-being of Filipinos," says Africa, who opened her private practice in Daly City last year. "I want to be at the forefront of helping people in the community."
If she had her way, Africa would "create a center that provides free mental health treatment to Filipino Americans." She cites the case of a recent immigrant from the Philippines, who last year allegedly killed his niece in a depression-triggered, drug- induced stabbing frenzy in San Jose. "If the family knew they could access counseling, they might have avoided the tragedy."
Already Africa has been a valuable resource for the community. The former manager of youth treatment for Asian American Recovery Services now heads the client services program and provides clinical direction at CORA, a job she began last September. Although she manages a staff of seven bilingual counselors, she takes calls on the agency's 24-hour support line, especially on requests for a Tagalog-speaking counselor.
"I am concerned particularly about recent immigrants," she says. "The additional stress of trying to make it here in the U.S. is especially significant for the children. I see parenting also as an issue. I think we have to learn new tools to discipline and take care of our children. I don't mean change everything about the Filipino way, but look at more appropriate ways to do things. Africa brings a high level of cultural competence because of her education, training and personal identity, but she would be the first to disclaim herself as an authority.
"Cultural competence is an approach that is responsible to the needs and concerns of different people," she says. "We can only strive for cultural competence, but we can be culturally sensitive to people who come from different backgrounds. I don't think one person can be an expert in all the cultures. It's our attempt to understand where people are coming from that makes us become more effective. Training breaks down stereotypes about classes and groups of people or assumptions about groups." Neither does it follow that a Filipino psychologist would work best with Filipinos, she says. "Language is an important factor because you want to make sure you understand each other," she says. "What counts is feeling you can trust your therapists and can work with them and they will not judge you." As a gay woman of color, she has faced all sorts of behaviors. "Who would want to go see you when you're gay," her mother once rebuked her. "They would think you are not going to be able to help them because you can't help yourself." The admonition gave Africa pause. "In a lot of ways, my being open about my sexuality has made people feel 'safer' to see me as a therapist," she concludes. "They know I can understand what they're going through. There are still people who judge me and I don't force the issue with them. I don't go around saying 'My name is Jei and I'm gay.' What's important is who I am as a person."
Her vibrant formation began at St. Theresa's College, where she first dreamed of becoming a doctor of medicine, and then at the University of the Philippines, where a psychology professor inspired her to follow in her footsteps. With her undergrad in social sciences, Africa pursued a master's and then a doctorate in clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in Alameda, delivering the valedictory address at the commencement rites.
Africa joins Berkeley-based Dr. Ruth Cobb Hill in breaking ground. Before them there were already Filipino Californians with master's degrees in counseling. Rare, however, were those who were licensed. If there was a doctor of psychology in the area (the exact number is unknown because the state psych licensing board will not disclose members' ethnicity), they stayed below the radar.
"Maybe because it takes about four to five years to complete graduate school," Africa speculates. "Maybe therapy is a new concept. People don't really know it as much, unless they were born here. In the Philippines, going to see a therapist or a psychiatrist connotes something negative."
Paulita Lasola Malay agrees.
"Most Filipinos do not go to therapy because of misconceptions and the stigma," says Malay, a San Bruno-based marriage and family therapist (MFT). "They think 'psycho' means 'crazy.' Movies have generated a lot of these misconceptions. They also believe that 'ichi-chismis' lang sila (they will be subject to gossip), that's why I go to great lengths to explain what confidentiality is. I don't think there is an equivalent word in the Philippines; the closest is 'sekreto' and yet confidentiality does not mean secret. So I use a metaphor of the confessional whereby the priest cannot talk about the sins or omissions we confess to him because that is confidential."
One of only three known Fil-Am licensed marriage and family therapists in California, Malay, 69, opened her private practice in 2002, 16 years after she first arrived.
"Those of my generation may not have wanted to start all over again as I did," says the former senior guidance counselor at Maryknoll College, whose master's degree from De la Salle University was not recognized locally, discouraging her from pursuing her doctorate here. "I had to take another master's degree at San Francisco State, which took me four long years while I worked full time during the day."
Malay had the fortune of getting a scholarship at the summer institute of Virginia Satir, whom she lauded as "the Columbus of Family Therapy," and who inspired her to become an MFT. She "blazed the trail" in 1997 when she joined CORA's earlier incarnation, the Center for Domestic Violence, to establish its Filipino Outreach Program, still the first and only Filipino-specific program for abuse survivors in Northern California.
Malay herself can count only Nan Santiago of Kaiser Permanente, who was her intern supervisor, and Karla Talkoff, a counselor with the Jefferson Unified School District, as the two other MFT's around. "I take being a Fil-Am psychotherapist as an honor, a privilege and a challenge," shares Malay, whose name is familiar throughout the local mental health community. In her practice, she "specializes in relationships," unlike psychologists, who have additional training to "administer and interpret psychological tests and do clinical research."
Malay is much sought-after for couples' and children's counseling. These days she is renowned as the only Filipina professional licensed to help abusers alter their behavior.
"I stand from the viewpoint of well- ness, not illness," she explains. "Some of my colleagues refer to those they serve as 'patients' while I prefer 'clients' because I consider my clientele as not sick, they just have life problems. I expect them to improve their lives to the fullest of their potential."
Malay emphasizes that she does not refer to the men and women in her support groups as "batterers," nor does she consider them as such.
"To me the term is harsh," she says. "I - prefer 'offender,' which is more accurate. They have been charged for abusive behavior toward an intimate. I don't think they can unlearn to be abusive, but they can stop the behavior and replace it with non-abusive behavior. Once you've learned something, you've learned it. Everybody has problems. Offenders have problems expressing their anger appropriately, among many problems. The person who does not have problems is already six feet under."
Being Filipina has been both an asset and a barrier to her practice, "depending on the values, desires and personality of the client," says Malay.
"When I worked on the abuse hotline, I would get two different reactions from Filipinos," she recalls. "One was relief. 'Ay salamat, Filipina ka? Naiintindihan mo ako, hindi ako kailangan mag-English.'(Thank Goodness. Are you Filipina? You understand me. I don't need to speak English.) The other was embarrassment. 'I'd rather talk with someone else because you might know the person I'm going to talk about,' they'd say. That's when I explained about confidentiality."
Her office is a refuge, its corners designed by a geomancer to ensure harmony, productivity and peace for all visitors. White candles fill the room with a sweet warmth, pink pillows lighten up the black couch, her certificates surround her framed license.
One wall is studded with assorted miniature objects -- animals, landmarks, toys, plants, furniture -- on a shelf over a little sand box, a favorite tool for children's play therapy.
Malay has helped bring together families that abuse brought asunder, which certainly makes the long journey to her profession worth it.
Cherie M Querol Moreno writes on community and women's issues from Daly City California. Wrong Impression: Marriage and family therapist Paulita Lasola Malay says misconceptions and the stigma attached to psychotherapy explains the Filipino American community's rejection of mental health services.
Filipinas Magazine can be accessed at www.filipinasmag.com