California’s Mental Health Providers Need to Try Harder to Reach Diverse Communities, Disparities Report Says

A key theme of the strategic plan is for mental health providers to learn cultural competence skills to more effectively reach communities. Photo: Thinkstock

California’s mental health providers need to work more closely with schools, communities and faith groups to make sure all residents get the care they need, according to a new report.

The California Reducing Disparities Project’s 80-page strategic plan, released Tuesday, also calls for the state to do a better job of collecting data on demographics and addressing social factors that hurt mental health, like public safety concerns or a lack of employment and education. Altogether, 27 strategies are cited in the plan.

The report, which was paid for by the state Department of Public Health, is the culmination of five years of work by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and its partners. It focused on addressing the mental health needs of five historically underserved populations: African-American, Latino, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ).

Sarah de Guia, executive director of the Health Network, called the report a game-changer.

“This is not a government report,” she said. “This is a report by the community for the community, funded with government dollars.”

The report release was timed to coincide with a Los Angeles conference on the Reducing Disparities Project attended by more than 200 advocates, providers and policymakers from around the state.

Poshi Walker, who attended the conference and helped write the report, said the plan is intended to be a broad outline of goals to reduce disparities.

“We were very precise that this is not a cookbook, this is a menu,” said Walker, the LGTBQ program director at Mental Health America of Northern California. “We can’t tell you how to do the things being recommended. That’s a different task.”

Plans to implement the report are already underway. The California Reducing Disparities Project has budgeted $60 million for 41 agencies and grantees around the state to address the disparities. Thirty-five of the grants went to pilot projects to improve mental health in under-served communities with the remaining awards going to capacity building projects, technical assistance and evaluation services. The grants run through 2021.

The funding comes from the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63) approved by voters in 2004. The act imposes a 1 percent tax on personal income over $1 million.

A key theme of the strategic plan is for mental health providers to learn cultural competence skills to more effectively reach communities. That could mean providing services in varying languages or presenting information in a way that is more appealing to different groups.

As an example, one group that received pilot project funding is the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project in Oxnard. The group created a course tailored for women in the Mixtec ethnic group, an indigenous group from southern Mexico, to learn how to maintain healthy family relationships, find coping skills and have high self-esteem.

“The key to our program is that we don’t outwardly say ‘mental health,’ ‘depression’ or ‘stress,’” said Genevieve Flores-Haro, associate director of the nonprofit. “That’s off-putting to our community.”

Instead, the Spanish name of the course translates to “Living with Love.”

The Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project received funding to collect data on the effectiveness of the course. The group knows it works because the course has been presented successfully for seven years, but it needs hard data so it can qualify for government funding sources that require an evidence-based approach.

The San Joaquin Pride Center, which serves the LGBTQ population in the Stockton area, is using its funding the from the California Reducing Disparities Project to provide mental health counseling for LGBTQ youth. The group is also empowering youth to improve their school climate and educating adults on acceptance of different sexual orientations.

Nicholas Hatten, executive director of the center, said the money was sorely needed as the center gets no financial support from its county, unlike other LGBTQ centers around the state.

The coming-out process can be difficult for youth in the area, he said. As examples, Hatten said one youth seeking counseling was sent to a Bible class and another was questioned about why she wanted to discuss being a lesbian.

Jim Gilmer, past chair of the California Mental Health Services Act Multicultural Coalition, who also worked on preparing the strategic plan to reduce mental health disparities, said the project is needed now more than ever.

“Nationally we’re in a mental health crisis,” he said. “With all the hate, all the violence, the racial issues, we’re in a real bad state. It exacerbates mental health issues in our country.”

He called on policymakers to provide more funding to end disparities. He pointed out that the $60 million budgeted for the California Reducing Disparities Project is less than 1 percent of the total funding received from the Mental Health Services Act.

“The most important element is to put your money where your mouth is,” he said.

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