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Working to Meet the Need for Culturally Competent Mental Health Services for Latinos in Michigan

By Maria Cebreco, Southfield, MI

Established in 1985, El Centro La Familia is a non-profit organization located in Pontiac, Michigan. The agency provides mental health services to Oakland County's Hispanic community. Currently the staff serves approximately 325 Hispanics with mental disabilities every year.

Bilingual Bicultural Services

According to Sonia Acosta, Ph.D., Director of El Centro La Familia, "Effective mental health care service provision requires a significant amount of comfort and trust on the part of the consumer." She added, "By offering bilingual, culturally-sensitive services, we create a comfortable environment to help meet the mental health needs of Hispanics."

The staff provides services to individuals who have cognitive and mood disorders such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In addition, El Centro La Familia has an innovative outpatient treatment program aimed to serve Latinos with mental illness who are substance abusers.

The staff offers assessment, crisis intervention, educational workshops, substance abuse prevention, home-based family counseling, prenatal workshops, special programs for adults with children, school-based counseling, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Growing Latino Population

El Centro La Familia provides a critical service to the growing Hispanic community in Oakland County. According to the Detroit News (August 2, 2002), "Oakland County has seen its Hispanic population grow 48 percent in the last 12 years to 28,999 residents from 19,630." It is likely growth has continued since then.

As the number of Hispanics in Oakland County grows, the need for services in Spanish is increasing. Barbara Upmeyer, office manager at El Centro La Familia explained that their staff is bilingual and bicultural. "Hispanics in Oakland County come to El Centro La Familia to express their needs in a welcoming and accepting environment."

More Services Needed

Since there are few agencies that monolingual Spanish-speakers can turn to for assistance, El Centro La Familia is a much needed addition to Oakland's social service community. According to a 1999 Surgeon General Report on mental health ( "While the percentage of Spanish-speaking mental health professionals is not known, only about 1 percent of licensed psychologists who are members of the American Psychological Association identify themselves as Hispanic. Moreover, there are only 29 Hispanic mental health professionals for every 100,000 Hispanics in the United States, compared to 173 non-Hispanic white providers per 100,000."

The use of mental health services - according to the same report - illustrates the low numbers of Latinos who seek help. "Among Hispanic Americans with a mental disorders, fewer than 1 in 11 contact mental health specialists, while fewer than 1 in 5 contact general health care providers. Among Hispanic immigrants with mental disorders, fewer than 1 in 20 use services from mental health specialists, while fewer than 1 in 10 use services from general health care providers."

The staff of El Centro La Familia is cognizant of the shortage of bilingual bicultural mental health professionals. El Centro La Familia employs eight bilingual mental health care professionals who provide services to mono-lingual Spanish-speakers. This helps minimize the language barrier, and therefore, misunderstanding and misdiagnosis. The El Centro La Familia staff also tailors their services to the family unit so it is easy for the entire family to participate if desired. Many Hispanic families prefer to make doctor's visits and take part in other medically-related activities as a family.

Acosta attributes the agency's success to the fact that,

"We look like them, speak their language and identify with them. We are sensitive to cultural differences. We develop trust and once that trust is established, stigmas about mental illness are minimized. Once they know that we care about them they refer family members and friends to our agency."

Expanding Services for the Future

Acosta hopes to attract more people with physical and developmental disabilities to their programs. The Center has only seen a few people who did not have mental health issues. Those who came asked for assistance securing wheelchairs or other assistive devices. El Centro La Familia staff was able to find the necessary resources to help them.

El Centro La Familia staff currently is working on a grant to expand services by working with Spanish-speaking women with disabilities who are pregnant.

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