Cultural differences and language barriers have made it difficult for some Hispanic residents to find and work with behavioral health providers
Latino residents of New Jersey who need mental health services face a range of challenges, including language barriers, lack of access to providers and cultural stigma over seeking help.
Now, lawmakers in Washington say they can address many of these issues with a bill introduced in late July that aims to meet the diverse cultural and language needs of various Hispanic and Latino populations and increase awareness of the symptoms of mental illnesses. What’s more, it takes into account differences in subgroups, such as gender, gender identity, age, sexual orientation and race or ethnicity.
The move by legislators, including U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), arrives as the Latino population in the United States grew from 50.5 million people in 2010 to 62.1 million in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Slightly more than half, 51.1%, of the total U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020 came from growth in that population.
“I applaud the efforts of Sen. Menendez in recognizing the behavioral health disparities facing Latino communities across the country and here in New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), a member of the New Jersey Legislative Latino Caucus, in a statement. “New Jersey has made great progress in addressing the accessibility of behavioral health care services for all residents; however for the specific Latino population we do have an opportunity to do more,” she added.
One way to do this would be through the expansion of community services like the Latino Telehealth pilot program that Lopez launched with Middlesex County said Lopez.
Yet there is still a lack of mental health clinicians in New Jersey and across the country who can speak Spanish while also understanding the linguistic and cultural nuances of the speaker, according to Dr. Angelica Diaz-Martinez, a professor and director of clinical training in the clinical department at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. And for many mental-health-care professionals who do speak fluent Spanish, it’s hard to keep up with the number of referrals and the task of finding services, Diaz-Martinez said.
Meanwhile, the bill, the Mental Health for Latinos Act of 2023, also seeks to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental and behavioral health of Hispanic and Latino populations across the country.
“In New Jersey, we had a whole generation of Latino fathers lost to the pandemic because of the essential workforce,” said Dr. Jesselly De La Cruz, the executive director for the Latino Action Network Foundation. “There’s a lot of grief that we’re working with that we need to recover from,” said De La Cruz, who is also a lifetime member and past president of the Latino Mental Health Association of New Jersey.
The biggest barrier to care is the lack of access to health care coverage for immigrant and Latino communities, said De La Cruz. As for stigma surrounding mental health, De La Cruz said that the stigma does not come from the Latino community itself, but from the American healthcare system. Historical inequity, racism and even misogyny influence the ways in which symptoms are diagnosed and assessed, she said.
Unified model for delivering services
But one model that works well within Latino communities is being able to access mental health care providers where clients might also be seeking care for physical health needs, said Dr. Connie Hoyos Nervi, a professor and assistant director who also is at the clinical department of Rutgers Graduate School. When mental health providers are embedded in medical clinics, that can be “very helpful” because that also helps clients access care on the spot when they need something, said Hoyos Nervi.
Hoyos Nervi’s parents emigrated from Colombia to the United States in the 1970s when there was a shortage of physicians due to the Vietnam War. Her father, who was 40 years old at the time, redid his medical residency in the United States and set up a family practice serving the Spanish-speaking community in the Trenton area, she explained.
The legislation proposed by Menendez, along with U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif) and Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, a Democrat representing the 31st District of California, also calls for “a comprehensive public health approach” to promoting behavioral health that focuses on the intersection between behavioral health and physical health.
“Communities of color, including Latinos, often lack access to culturally appropriate mental health care, which can negatively affect their health outcomes,” Menendez said in a statement. “One of the best ways to combat this inequity is by improving outreach and educating communities about the benefits of behavioral and mental health care, and that’s why I’m co-leading this legislation with Sen. Padilla and Congresswoman Napolitano. We want to ensure that Latinos have all the necessary tools, resources and information when accessing behavioral and mental health services.”
While barriers to care still persist, services are currently offered by mental health professionals, including help for kids, mothers and educators through therapeutic services and professional workshops.
Vanessa De Jesus Guzman, a licensed professional counselor, is the founder and chief executive officer of Free to Be Mindful, a company that offers therapeutic services that specializes in working with children and mothers with parenting-related stress. She also founded Amiga Moms as part of the same company to offer a supportive network and educational assets for mothers to become “more patient and more mindful” while also taking care of themselves.
“The reason why I established specifically Amiga Moms is because since there is such a big stigma, I find that when we do things through a social network, especially when it comes to cultural backgrounds … it’s easy to educate while having fun and building that support and then giving those bite-sized pieces of mental health,” said De Jesus Guzman, who is president-elect of the Latino Mental Health Association of New Jersey.
The bill seeks to provide information on interventions and treatments that are evidence-based and culturally and linguistically appropriate. Additionally, it aims to appropriate $1 million in the upcoming federal budget to put these services into place.
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