Growing up as a foster kid, Sylvia Valenzuela said she found herself struggling with depression. With no one to turn to she eventually sought professional help while still in her teens.
“I was feeling sad about everything,” the 21-year-old said. “I wanted someone to talk with to relieve the stress.”
Fortunately, when she sought help her case manager was someone whose life experiences somewhat reflected her own, Valenzuela said.
Today, Valenzuela finds herself steering troubled teens toward treatment from the county’s Behavioral Health Services department. And much of the positive rapport she is able to build with her charges comes as a result of her own past experiences and the youths’ ability to relate to them.
“It’s a little bit easier for them to be more open with me,” Valenzuela, who works as a peer supporter, said.
The peer supporters’ efforts are part of a multi-faceted initiative the department employs Valleywide to significant success, officials said.
When it comes to promoting and having residents access available mental health services, the county has one of the best penetration rates in the state, said Behavioral Health Services Director Michael Horn.
And that in itself is quite an accomplishment, considering Latinos tend to shy away from accessing mental health services.
Barriers to accessing services
Within the Latino community, shame and stigma often prevent many from asking for and receiving mental health services. Cultural standards, expectations of masculinity and lack of information and awareness about the effectiveness of treatments are often common concerns, according to a report by the University of California, Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities.
The report, titled “Community-Defined Solutions for Latino Mental Health Care Disparities,” also noted social and economic conditions, from poor living conditions to inadequate transportation, as considerable factors associated with mental illness and barriers to attaining and maintaining wellness.
During community forums hosted by the study’s authors, community members suggested adapting mental health services to better suit their specific needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
A system of care that does not fully meet the needs of Latino youth who need mental health services was also cited by forum participants.
When fellow peer supporter Gloria Blanquel was a foster child and sought mental health services in Riverside County, she had the distinct feeling that her case worker couldn’t relate to what she was going through.
As one of three peer supporters who work with the Imperial County department’s adolescent alcohol and drug programs, Blanquel ventures into schools and homes to speak about mental health to troubled youths.
Her past experiences and perseverance have helped her establish a connection with troubled teens, she said.
“They look up to you because you turned out pretty good,” Blanquel said.
Having a staff that is “culturally competent” has helped Behavioral Health Services reach and retain its clientele, director Horn said.
About 80 percent of the staff is bilingual and attuned to cultural norms that give them “an idea of what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.
“That empathy can be heard in (the mental health professional’s) voice,” he said.
The department employs cost-effective treatment that improves social behavior and “gets results,” Horn said.
“You have to put services into the community,” Horn said, noting their presence in the far reaches of the county, at school sites and within people’s homes.
The California Institute of Mental Health has picked the county department to speak at a December summit about their success in implementing wide-penetrating treatment and outreach efforts, Horn said.
“Auditors are blown away by what we’re doing,” Horn said.
Staff Writer, Copy Editor Julio Morales can be reached at 760-337-3415 or at email@example.com
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