In order to help close the health gap in Santa Ana, universities need to better train their students
“Your mental health is important. We’ve heard this phrase all over social media, but what exactly is mental health and why is it important? We define it as our general well-being, like our emotional state, our psychological state and our social life. These aspects of ourselves are influenced by the life events we experience during our lifetime. Being in a healthy mental state is important because it helps people cope with life’s stressors, be in good physical health, have positive relationships with others, and work productively.
Given their importance, mental health services have grown over the past decade, but many people still do not have access to them and are not reached by organizations either. In Santa Ana, in the heart of Orange County, there is a mismatch between the abundance of mental / behavioral health services and the residents who actually use those services. Although the city has the highest number of behavioral health services in the county (61 facilities), residents continue to have one of the highest rates of psychological distress compared to other cities in the county.
As two people who identify with the community, we believe it is important to know why mental health issues remain high despite the abundance of services. During our research, we found that for Latinx families with children, it depends on the beliefs of the mental health caregiver, their perception that the child needs help, and the impact. child mental health issues on the family. It’s important to note that people may not seek treatment because they don’t recognize the symptoms of mental health issues or because they may not want to talk about privacy issues at home. This can increase stigma because people may fear being called “locos” (crazy) and feel ashamed of needing services. In Santa Ana, residents may also face language barriers, making it difficult to communicate with providers who do not speak the same language or do not provide appropriate translation services.
During our research, we also learned that language as a barrier for this community is more complex. The barriers to accessing and using mental health care are not limited to the availability of services in Spanish, but also to the quality of these services. People do not ask for help even when help is available in their language and when they are able to access these resources, how is it? One of the reasons may be the lack of cultural competence on the part of practitioners and organizations.
There is research that supports the idea that clients are more likely to trust someone in their mental health field who they think they can relate to. For Latinx people, this can mean they feel more comfortable trusting a Latinx practitioner who shares their cultural identity, can communicate fluently with them in Spanish, and can simplify clinical terminology during therapy in Spanish. In the mental health workforce, this is part of cultural competence. However, identifying yourself as Latinx and speaking Spanish does not make a culturally competent practitioner by nature, it requires training.
In order to help close the health gap for the Spanish speaking community of Santa Ana, it is not enough to demand more mental health services in Spanish. Latinx-centric approaches and Latinx-specific skills are required. These frameworks allow a properly trained practitioner to understand Latinx individuals in their environment, which is crucial in understanding how to best serve that client. Services must be provided in a culturally competent and sensitive manner by fully bilingual practitioners so that these clients are able to maximize their use of the mental health resources available in their region of residence. This means that practitioners must be properly trained in school before they graduate and enter the workforce. As Masters of Social Work students, we asked ourselves how does our school prepare us as bilingual service providers? Are we able to provide the best possible service to our Latinx customers?
We both agreed that we are not. Our school needs to revise the curriculum to better reflect the current standards that guide social work. The National Association of Social Workers revised its code of ethics earlier this year to include cultural competence as an ethical standard. This requires that our university, and all county educational institutions train social workers, ensure their students are trained in cultural skills. Graduate students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition fees each year. Schools should allocate funds to provide better training for bilingual students who serve the Latinx community in their internships and who will serve the Latinx community in their future jobs after graduation. Although Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States, there is a dearth of bilingual practitioners in the country. This may be due in part to the fact that bilingual practitioners are not trained to provide services in Spanish. Our school does not place emphasis on training bilingual clinicians to serve the Latinx community. The curriculum of the Adult Mental Health and Wellness Program offers only one university course that is specifically aimed at this community. This is an elective course that students are not required to take. This must change because the current training we receive does not conform to the guiding standards and values of our profession. Our ability to speak Spanish is not sufficient to establish culturally competent treatment.
Vanessa Lopez is a UC Berkeley alumnus (2021) and is currently a graduate student at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She was born and raised in Santa Ana and currently resides in the community.
Sendy Ramirez is a UC Berkeley alumnus (2005) and is currently a graduate student at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She has a beautiful 3 year old daughter who she loves to read to.
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