Women’s Circle Offers Mental Health Support in Chiapas
A psychologist recounts a day in the life
Posted on Mar 8, 2023
Ana Cecilia Ortega, a psychologist with Compañeros En Salud, as Partners In Health is known in Mexico, helps patients access care and support through the mental health program. Below, she shares a typical afternoon at a women's circle in Matazano, Chiapas, where community members gather to "socialize, share insights, relax, and cultivate a sense of community and belonging."
It is 5 a.m. and Bernarda Roblero starts her day grinding corn to make tortillas for her three children's breakfast. The electric corn mills sound in unison—evidence that women wake up first in Matazano.
Matazano is a rural community in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, surrounded by mountains and trees. Walking down its dirt streets, you can hear the voices of young men sitting on their motorcycles, listening to loud music; they are outside the Ejidal house, where most of the men meet to make community decisions. On the next street corner, a group of men chat on the sidewalk, drinking beer and aguardiente. A few feet ahead, a bouncing basketball echoes across the court as some young men laugh loudly.
A few teenage girls watch the basketball game from the bleachers, and there are mothers walking around the court with their children, but most of the women are at home, doing housework and caregiving—making it difficult for them to connect with women outside of the family.
But there is a group of women in Matazano who are changing this dynamic and are connecting with other women in the public space.
In a classroom at the local elementary school, more than 15 women arrive punctually to a group known as “the women's circle.” This time, they have to rearrange the space because the room where they usually meet is busy. However, they seem to adapt quickly; the younger ones help the older ones by pulling the desks into a circle so they can all look at each other. In the center is Bernarda, who works as a community mental health worker with Compañeros En Salud, as Partners in Health is known in Mexico.
Compañeros En Salud has worked in Chiapas, Mexico since 2011, providing health care and social support to thousands of patients in the rural, mountainous Sierra Madre region. Community health workers have been integral to that work, accompanying patients to medical appointments, helping them access medications, and checking in with them at home.
Since 2019, Compañeros en Salud has trained nine community health workers known as cuidadoras (Spanish for “caregivers”) in mental health interventions. The cuidadoras support patients as they navigate common mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, and help prevent these conditions in general by offering the women a source of community and support.
The women’s circle, which began last year, is crucial to that work, especially as women in Chiapas are disproportionately affected by mental health conditions due to poverty, gender inequity, and gender-based violence.
Compañeros En Salud organized its first women’s circle in 2022 to provide a safe space for women to connect with each other. The women’s circles are facilitated by the cuidadoras, and all women interested in the community are invited to participate every two weeks. The circles offer a space for the women to socialize, share insights, relax, and cultivate a sense of community and belonging.
At the women’s circle in Matazano, the activity of the day is embroidery. Everyone receives a set of materials: colored yarn, cotton fabric, and wooden hoops. Bernarda begins the session by inviting the women to give a round of applause and then reminds them of the importance of respecting confidentiality in the group to ensure it is a safe space.
As the women start embroidering they begin to talk about how they have been doing. Bernarda asks questions to prompt conversation, such as “What is the most beautiful gift you have been given?” Some of the women remember gifts from loved ones who passed away. Others remember other types of loss, such as when a family member had to leave to work in the United States. Some participants share memories of gifts that remind them of when they felt loved by their spouses or children. During the sharing, some women smile wistfully; others let the tears flow.
After the women share their personal stories, Bernarda serves small cups of rice pudding. As everyone eats and mingles, she asks, "What things that we talked about today made you reflect or connect with your own story?" This question encourages the women to learn from each other. Many are surprised by the things they learn in the circle.
"We see each other on the street, but we don't know what's going on in each other's lives," says one participant.
Another one adds, “I now know that I am not the only one going through this.”
Most importantly, the circle offers a space in the community where women’s voices matter. Or, as a participant put it: "For me, the women's circle means friendship, unity, and trust."