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Providing mental health care for immigrants ‘personal for me,’ Pilsen Wellness Center director says

‘The communities we serve are very complex,’ Nestor Flores says. ‘These are vulnerable populations that are struggling to survive, low-income in many cases.’

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In 2012, the city of Chicago closed half of its mental health clinics, which served thousands of people.

In the years since, a team of psychotherapists at the Pilsen Wellness Center — led by Nestor Flores — has stepped up to meet the need.

“We grew from a few outpatient clinics to now we have 15,” says Flores, 47. “There’s definitely a need for it, and there’s always going to be a need as long as we have societal issues like poverty.”

Five of the clinics are in Pilsen and Little Village. Others are on the Southwest Side and in the suburbs, offering mental health therapy and substance-abuse treatment.

“The communities we serve are very complex,” Flores says. “These are vulnerable populations that are struggling to survive, low-income in many cases. ... And that causes a lot of stress on the mind.”

Flores’ decision to work in mental health came after he unexpectedly was widowed, and he and his family could not find culturally sensitive therapy. In 2010, he enrolled in graduate school. He got a master’s degree in clinical psychology in 2012, with a specialization in Latino mental health, from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He joined the clinic in 2013 and is now director of behavioral health initiatives.

“The cases that I get here resonate with me because I was an immigrant, my family had their share of struggles, and, as a young person, I could’ve dropped out of school, but somehow I found my way back,” he says. “This is personal for me.”

Pilsen Wellness Center. James Foster / Sun-Times

Flores says growing up in Little Village, Back of the Yards and Gage Park exposed him to many of the same environments his clients come from, and that informs how he interacts with them.

Flores and multilingual counselors treat conditions ranging from short-term issues due to a recent loss or trauma, to substance dependency, suicidal or homicidal breakdowns, to chronic mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorders. Their most critical cases typically involve sexual abuse trauma and heroin addiction.

Last year, Flores and the clinic’s staff moved to the old Marquette district police station at 2259 S. Damen Ave., which had been the city’s second-oldest police station until it was shut down in 2005. The Pilsen Wellness Center acquired the facility, valued at $815,000, for $1 and rehabbed it for $1.4 million.

He’s aware of the building’s history and the difficult relationship the police had with black and Mexican American residents in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Regardless of the reason people found themselves here, how they must have been treated and other things that went down, I like to tell people that we were able to transform the space into something that is now a place of healing and a place that is welcoming and a place that is trusting,” he says.

He treats clients and also manages 17 psychotherapists who each have a caseload of 25 people. Seventy-five percent of the clients they see are children and teenagers.

Flores has established partnerships with local elementary and middle schools, among them Madero, Ruiz, Perez and Cristo Rey, to provide counseling services at the schools as a supplement to their in-house counselors.

“The system that they’re embedded in: their parents, their culture, their friends, American pop culture, the way we live our lives in 2019, all of those things conspire to make life overwhelming for a lot of children and teens, and then they can’t cope,” he says.

Flores, who was born in Mexico City and moved to Chicago as a baby, says he’s seen the impact the current political climate towards immigrants has had.

“We get cases of families that have been ripped apart by deportation,” he says.

To cope with his often-stressful job, he paints and hangs his artwork in his office. He works out, meditates and likes to travel.

And he maintains a strong work philosophy: “Anyone that comes in through our doors is our community and is treated as a human being with their own story.”

Nestor Flores speaks with Elena Vertti, a psychotherapist, at the Pilsen Wellness Center.
Nestor Flores speaks with Elena Vertti, a psychotherapist, at the Pilsen Wellness Center.
James Foster / Sun-Times