Program based in Havana has served nearly 10,000 people
October 5, 2018
When a psychological help “hotline” was started at Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada de la Habana (First Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Havana) in 1995, there were virtually no telephones in Cuba, “so we had to adapt,” said Martha Rodriguez, one of two psychologists who run the unique counseling service.
The service — the first “hotline” service of its kind in Cuba — was inspired by the Rev. Dr. Héctor Méndez, the longtime pastor of the church who recently retired. Based on similar hotline services in the U.S., the church’s service now draws callers from all over the island in addition to walk-in clients in the nation’s capital. All services are free. Since the Cuban government doesn’t allow the service to be advertised, its popularity is entirely due to word of mouth.
Since its founding, the hotline has served nearly 10,000 Cubans. “We hear three main complaints,” said Myriam Álvarez, who holds a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Havana and who has been with the program since 1999. “Many people have health concerns, such as high stress, high blood pressure and the like,” Álvarez says. “The other main concerns are family issues and marriage and couples issues.”
Nearly three-quarters of the hotline’s clients are women. “We have a cultural standard that men don’t cry,” Álvarez said. “Society allows women to express health complaints more than men.” But that is slowly changing, Rodriguez said. “Many times, men come to us because their wives and mothers send them.”
In a society where government control is omnipresent, “we have been very smart in cooperating with the government and not competing with their services, said Álvarez, who worked as a Cuban government psychologist before coming to the hotline service. “We have developed a very good relationship.” The Cuban Ministry of Health regularly refers clients to Rodriguez and Álvarez, who work out of a cramped space at the church.
The two are well aware of the tension between pastoral counseling and psychotherapy. “We are Christians, but we are also health professionals,” Rodriguez said. “I have to tell myself that I am a psychologist first, but also many of our clients are church members, so we have to assess whether the client needs a psychologist or a pastor.”
Álvarez, who grew up at the church, said, “We are better psychologists because we look at problems through the lens of faith, but we cannot get too close — I have to maintain a space where I can function as a psychologist. This is not a freelance role — it is highly specialized.”
Typically, Álvarez works mornings and Rodriguez afternoons. They share the load of responding to calls that come into the answering machine in their office. Rodriguez likes to work with families. Álvarez is interested in working with older adults. An outgrowth of the hotline service is a lifelong learning program at the church called the School for the Elderly. On a recent day, more than a dozen seniors were in the courtyard of the church practicing Tai Chi.
Rodriguez and Álvarez agree that the hotline service has produced many benefits. “Since I have moved from the government to the church my faith has increased,” said Álvarez. “First thing in the morning and last thing at night I thank God for blessing me,” she added. “I’m a better psychologist and Christian because of this work.”
Rodriguez said: “This is a ministry — we provide a service, but we ourselves are richly blessed. We receive calls from all over Cuba — our community is all of Cuba. We are improving the lives of people and strengthening the institution of the church.”
Jerry Van Marter, Former Director of Communications, Office of the General Assembly
Today’s Focus: Psychological Help ‘hotline’ in Cuba
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Loving God, we give thanks for those who serve you so compassionately. We ask that you guide them in their work. In the name of Jesus. Amen.