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Common roots: Shared life experience strengthens the student-therapist relationship

Marco Murrieta, a school-based therapist at Wellstone International High School, has a personal story that mirrors that of the students he counsels.

When Marco Murrieta decided to become a social worker, he always knew that he wanted to work with young people whose life experiences mirrored his own.
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

Students at Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis have more weighing on their minds than most. The public school, designed to meet the needs of refugee and immigrant youth, helps young English learners ages 17-21 find their footing in a new country.

Many Wellstone students have experienced significant change and trauma in their young lives, a reality that may have a negative impact on their ability to learn and assimilate into a new culture. On the front lines with these young people are mental health therapists who work to help them thrive as they make a home in a new country.

Marco Murrieta, a school-based therapist at Wellstone, has a personal story that mirrors that of the students he counsels. When he was in first grade, Murrieta’s recently divorced mother brought him all the way to Fairmont, Minnesota, from Mexico. He still remembers struggling mightily to settle into an unfamiliar life with his grandparents.

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It was a rocky road, to say the least.

“I didn’t speak any English,” Murrieta said. “That was really difficult. All the kids in the school were white, and I wasn’t used to that. I’d never really seen or been around a lot of white people before.”

At home, his mother struggled with depression, keeping mostly to herself, and after years spent apart, Murrieta felt like his grandparents were nearly strangers. “For a long time, I felt alone,” he said. “I had a really hard time adjusting, and even as I got older, things still felt tough.”

Martha Olsen
Martha Olsen
This personal familiarity with the toll that immigration can take on childhood makes Murrieta uniquely qualified to work with Wellstone students, said Martha Olsen, executive director of Watercourse Counseling Center, a nonprofit that employs a team of therapists, including Murrieta, to work with students and their parents onsite at a number of Minneapolis public schools.

Because Murrieta’s life runs parallel to many Wellstone students’, Olsen said, young people and their families feel more comfortable opening up to him about their struggles.

“I think Marco’s personal history helps him make connections,” she said. Wellstone, with its unique population, “is not always an easy school to build therapeutic relationships in. Marco’s unique understanding of their circumstance is important and helpful in building strong therapeutic relationships with students. His history gives him more immediate credibility.”

‘I understand where they’re coming from’

Building connections and credibility is key, said Mark Sander, director of school mental health for Hennepin County and the Minneapolis Public Schools.  Many immigrant cultures have a history of shame and secrecy around mental illness, but when mental health care providers share common stories and racial backgrounds with the people they serve, some of that divide is bridged.

“What we’ve learned through our research is that having someone from your culture talk to you about your mental health and help you understand what’s going on from a culturally familiar perspective helps make therapy feel more comfortable,” he said.  

Watercourse therapists have worked in the Minneapolis public schools since 2002, said Rochelle Cox, the district’s executive director of special education and health services. Over the years, she said, the agency has demonstrated a keen interest in recruiting and training therapists from minority cultures: They see the value of giving mental health care a familiar face.

“In Minneapolis Public Schools, we honor the cultural diversity of our school district,” she said. “We want our students to see themselves in the faces of those who are working with them. Watercourse has been committed to developing mental health professionals from our cultural communities: They’ve developed Latino, Latina and Somali therapists, which is huge.”

When Murrieta decided to become a social worker, he always knew that he wanted to work with young people whose life experiences mirrored his own. That translated into a focus on low-income communities of color that has been key to keeping him interested in and inspired by his work.

“I don’t think I would like to work with affluent families because their experiences are so different from mine,” Murrieta said. He believes his own set of experiences and interests help deepen his therapeutic relationships with students — they more quickly see him as trustworthy and invested in their futures because he’s lived a life very similar to theirs.

“Like my students, I understand the reality of leaving what you are used to or familiar with and going to a new place where you don’t know anybody and you can’t communicate,” he said. “When I first got here, I didn’t even know how to ask to go to the bathroom. I understand where they’re coming from.”

One advantage that Murrieta may have had over the students he serves is that he came to the United States when he was younger, giving him more time to build a an understanding of the culture and the educational system. Wellstone students typically are new arrivals, and this makes their assimilation into the culture particularly tough.

“Some of our students may not fit in a traditional high school,” Murrieta explained. It is not unusual for a Wellstone student to start school just weeks after arriving in Minnesota: “They may have just gotten here and need to start at ninth grade even though they are older because they didn’t have a regular education before they came here.”

In-school services inspire participation

A significant number of Wellstone International students came to the United States as unaccompanied minors, Murrieta said. Because of this fact, many students have a hard time adapting to their new family structures. This reordering of adult caretakers and role models can cause mental health challenges for young people and interfere with their academic performance.

“With these kids, the main issue that comes up again and again when we talk is difficulties they are having with reunification,” Murrieta said. Because of immigration issues and cultural tradition, many of the students he sees have spent years separated from their biological parents, being raised in their home countries by grandparents or other relatives. When children and parents are finally reunited, the transition can cause significant stress.

“They don’t really know their parents,” Murrieta said. “In many ways, they are strangers to them. A lot of the kids I work with feel like their grandparents are their real parents. And then they have to leave their grandparents and get to know their biological parents again.”  

Murrieta, with his firsthand knowledge of the struggles caused by reordered family life, encourages students and parents to come to the school and meet with him together. He finds this approach to be successful: “When everyone is in the room, we are able to really discuss their problems and work to develop strategies aimed at resolution,” he said.

The fact that these group sessions are scheduled at school rather than at an offsite location greatly increases the odds that families will participate, Olsen said. Offering mental health services at school puts kids and their families at ease, and when people feel comfortable they are much more likely to take part.  

Research conducted by the Minneapolis Public Schools underscores this belief.

“If a social worker refers a family outside of the school for services, they get there about 10 to 15 percent of the time,” Olsen said. “If they are referred to services within the school, they are there about 85-90 percent of the time.”

For many families, especially immigrant families, accessing mental health services in a school is less intimidating, Sander said.

“In a lot of communities, there are stigmas around mental health — but when we are providing services at school it feels like less of a big deal.”

And making mental health care as accessible as possible is important, Sander continued, because the need for such treatment among the student body is significant: A large number — some 85 percent, according to Olsen — of the children and families who seek services from school-based counselors in Minneapolis are in serious need of help.  

“This isn’t the ‘worried well’ that are coming in,” he said. “These are students and families with serious mental health conditions who didn’t have access to care but are able to access it now that these services are available in the schools.”

Murrieta said he and his peers regularly consult with school-based staff to coordinate student care. Social workers and teachers recommend kids to counselors for mental health services, and therapists consult with staff and administrators about student well being.

A fully “embedded” approach to school mental health services is a goal that Minneapolis Public Schools is working to reach, Cox said. When students and families see school as a safe place to turn for mental health support, it helps school staff make important connections between students’ home lives and their academic performance: “Anchoring the mental health supports within the school supports that are already in place helps the continuum of care. This works best for everyone involved.”   

Community builder

Murrieta’s life has included more than one long journey. The first, his trip from Mexico all the way north to Minnesota, reset his future and impacted the lives of his family members.

Though he struggled at first to understand English, it didn’t take the young Murrieta long to pick up the language. His mother and grandparents were much more comfortable speaking Spanish, however, and so, like many immigrant children, Murrieta became their translator, accompanying them to doctor’s appointments and school meetings, to explain as best he could the complexities of life in a new country.

Sometimes those translation jobs could be awkward — like when he was expected to relay private medical information for his grandfather — but Murrieta helped without complaint. Having heavy expectations placed on his young shoulders created stress; when combined with the trauma of his flight from all he had known and loved, the result was serious teenage rebellion and misbehavior. He hung out with the wrong crowd, drank too much and “did dumb things.” He was even arrested.

But a more significant trauma lay in store.

I was assaulted by several guys with bats and pool sticks and almost bled to death,” Murrieta said. After high school, he joined the military, and set out on an arduous journey. When he enlisted, it was peacetime, but not long later the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred and completely altered his trajectory.

“The military stress and the assault, and the break in attachment as a child have impacted me,” he said.

After leaving the military, Murrieta started looking for factory jobs until his aunt suggested another career path.

“She said,” he recalled, “‘Why don’t you go into social work?’ I think it was because of how I’d helped my mother and my grandparents when I was young. She said, ‘You’ve always been good at helping people. This would be a good job for you.’ ”  

Murrieta took his aunt seriously, and now, helping people is what he does every day.

After formative experiences of feeling out of place and alone, he works hard to help his students find a place for place for themselves in a foreign and unsettling world.

“I understand the value of community and belonging,” Murrieta said. A sense of community can be created, he believes, through the telling of life stories, an activity that gives both tellers and listeners a shared sense of a humanity and voice.

In a crowded meeting space at Wellstone International, Murrieta has hung a cloth decorated with a tree. The cloth, he explained, is a representation of “The Tree of Life,” a project that he and his colleagues at the school ask the students they counsel to undertake.

It’s a simple project, but for many kids at Wellstone, it carries great meaning.

“We ask students to draw a tree,” Murrieta said. “On the roots, they include facts about themselves, their community and their family. On the trunk they list their strengths. On the branches they include their dreams and their goals.”

Once the trees are completed, the students present their projects. For many, it’s a significant experience.

“They get to talk about everything that’s important to them and they get to hear different stories from other kids’ lives,” Murrieta said. “It’s something they really enjoy.” The stories bring the students closer together and help them feel that they are part of a larger community.

“I wish I would’ve had more of that myself,” Murrieta said, “So that’s what I try to bring to the kids here.”