Guest Comment: Let’s strive for culturally appropriate mental health care

Alex Sánchez is the founder and executive director of Voces Unidas Action Fund, a Latino-led advocacy organization based in Glenwood Springs.

Shortly before the New Year, we were shocked and saddened to learn that a 37-year-old mother in Glenwood Springs had been charged with stabbing and killing her two children.

It’s a devastating story that made headlines across Colorado and across the country.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a member of our community has killed a family member. I have personally known several others over the years. One case in particular involved Mayra and Eliseo Lopez, who were killed by their nephew in 2014. A jury later found him not guilty by reason of insanity on all counts. I worked with Mayra and Eliseo at McDonald’s in Aspen when I was in high school, so their deaths hit especially close to home.

As we strive to understand why such incidents occur and try to ensure that something like this never happens again, we must not overlook the role that mental health plays in the lives of so many Latino residents and Latinos in the region. Nor should we overlook the importance of investing large sums in culturally competent care, which the state has a unique opportunity to do with the $400 million in federal relief allocated specifically for behavioral health.

Rural areas of Colorado are struggling to recruit and provide mental health services in general (see recent reports on issues plaguing Mind Spring Health), which have been exacerbated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health, as well as the impact of the pandemic on labor and housing costs. Given these factors, it’s no surprise that providing culturally competent services to our growing Latino population is also a challenge – but it’s a challenge that, if done properly, can lead to many better health outcomes and thriving communities.

A culturally competent mental health system would include providers who are bilingual and able to identify with the community served. It would start with understanding that many, many residents who live among us have suffered countless traumas – from fleeing civil wars, gangs or poverty, to harrowing and often violent and desperate journeys to cross the border and then arrive in the USA. dealing with isolation, discrimination and so many inequities — which are difficult for many of us to understand.

Increasing access to mental health services was “strongly supported” by 93% of Latino community leaders surveyed as part of the 2021 Colorado Latino Policy Agenda. This survey also identified that 89% of Latino adults of Colorado support increasing access to mental health services.

We may never know for sure what would motivate a parent to harm their children – or a nephew to kill their aunt and uncle – but we know we can do more to improve mental health services in the region – especially for Latinos.

A one-size-fits-all approach to addressing mental illness simply does not work.

As mental health services in our community come under greater scrutiny, join me in calling on advocates and health care providers to be more mindful of the diversity of our population – and the experiences that affect our mental well-being – in the future.

It won’t be an easy task for an area that struggles to attract mental health professionals and provide services, but it’s essential to the safety and well-being of the community.

Alex Sánchez is the President and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, two advocacy organizations created and led by Latinos working in Lake, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties.


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