Therapists being sought for Hispanic community

Language barrier called a bar to some treatment

Howard County

January 15, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Concerned that cases of mental illness in Howard County's Hispanic population frequently go untreated because of language barriers, a local advocacy group has recruited Spanish-speaking therapists to treat this under served immigrant population.

Members of Alianza de la Communidad - a group dedicated to improving lives in the Hispanic community - won a $10,000 grant from the county's Mental Health Authority to pay for treatment and transportation services, and will begin the program this month.

"There is a tremendous need," said Viviana Simon, Alianza board president. "As in any population, there might be cases of depression - maybe for social and economic reasons - cases of domestic violence and cases involving learning disabilities. There's a range."

Since being awarded the grant nearly a year ago, Alianza members searched the county for mental health professionals who speak Spanish. They have recruited six who are interested in working with Alianza, approved three to provide services and will schedule meetings with the others.

"We try to interview the specialists to make sure that they do speak Spanish," said Marta Goodman, an Alianza board member who worked with board member Zorina Costello-Prewitt and member Rosa Pope to get the mental health project under way.

Group members will refer clients and handle billing paperwork, and the Mental Health Authority will pay the mental health workers, who have agreed to work for less than their regular fees.

"This is a small grant, but we're really encouraged that it will work out well," Simon said. "And hopefully we can get funding to continue in the future."

Since Alianza was founded two years ago, its representatives have spent many hours explaining the group to county agencies and nonprofit organizations. Donna Wells, executive director of the Mental Health Authority, approached Alianza about a year ago to discuss improving mental health services to Hispanics.

"She was very, very interested in trying to find mental health specialists that spoke the language because she saw the need," Goodman said.

Alianza estimates the county's Hispanic population is 15,000, twice the number reported in the 2000 census.

"We know many people didn't want to be a part of the census because they're undocumented," Simon said.

Although the Mental Health Authority has worked with Hispanic clients, the agency has had to hire interpreters for therapy sessions. "People do have issues and need counseling, but they feel extremely, extremely badly about having to use an interpreter," Simon said. "You can see how that would be awkward, having a third person in the room."

Alianza submitted a proposal to the Mental Health Authority, and Wells received state approval to award the $10,000 grant to the group.

In general, there are few Spanish-speaking medical professionals in the county, and Goodman said the lack of mental health therapists is particularly evident. She became aware of the situation in her job with the county school system as a community liaison with the English for Speakers of Others Languages program.

In discussions with children or parents about school matters, Goodman said that problems such as depression and substance abuse frequently surfaced. Other issues that came up were often linked to living and working in a foreign country.

"We have a lot of trying to adjust to new environments, culture shock," Goodman said.

Other triggers include the absence of family members, unemployment, or working two or three jobs.

"Oftentimes they have menial jobs, where they're not highly paid or even considered," she said.

Besides the mental health initiative, Alianza has spearheaded other projects to address the health care gap for Hispanics. The group worked with the Health Alliance Inc. to open a clinic in March for child-wellness visits at the agency's office on Cedar Lane in Columbia.

The clinics are open on the first and fourth Thursdays of each month.

Alianza also established a Help Center at Dasher Green Owen Brown School in Columbia. Open from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the center is an information and referral service staffed by Alianza volunteers.

Goodman said they help visitors with everything from translation questions to financial aid applications.

"We try to see what the need is and try to find help," Goodman said, "because there is help in Howard County; it's just that language is a barrier."

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