Guest commentary: Let’s strive for culturally-competent mental health care
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 is a devastating story that made headlines across Colorado and throughout the country.
Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of someone from our community killing a family member. I have personally known of several others over the years. One case in particular involved Mayra and Eliseo Lopez, who were killed by their nephew in 2014. A jury subsequently found him to be not guilty by reason of insanity on all charges. I worked with Mayra and Eliseo at the McDonald’s in Aspen when I was in high school, so their deaths hit particularly close to home.
As we work to understand why incidents like these take place and try to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, we must not overlook the role mental health plays in the lives of so many of the region’s Latino and Latina residents. We must also not overlook the importance of investing significant dollars in culturally competent care, which the state has a unique opportunity to do through the $400 million in federal relief money allocated specifically for behavioral health.
Rural areas in Colorado have a difficult time recruiting for and providing mental health services in general (see recent reporting on the troubles plaguing Mind Spring Health), which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on our mental health, as well as the pandemic’s impact on labor and housing costs. Considering those factors, it is not a surprise that delivering culturally competent services to our growing Latino population is also a challenge — but it is a challenge that, if properly addressed, can lead to improved health outcomes and thriving communities.
A culturally competent mental health system would include providers who are bilingual and can relate to the community being served. It would start with an understanding that many, many of the residents who live among us have experienced countless traumas — from fleeing civil wars, gangs or poverty, to harrowing and often violent and desperate journeys to cross the border, and then arriving in the U.S. to face isolation, discrimantion and so many inequities — that are difficult for many of us to comprehend.
Increasing access to mental health service was “strongly supported” by 93% of Latino community leaders surveyed as part of the 2021 Colorado Latino Policy Agenda. That survey also identified that 89% of Latino adults in Colorado support increasing access to mental health services.
We may never know for certain what would prompt a parent to harm their children — or a nephew to kill his aunt and uncle — but we do know that we can do more to improve mental health services in the region — particularly for Latinos.
A one-size-fits-all approach to addressing mental illness simply does not work.
With mental health services in our community coming under greater scrutiny, join me in calling on health care advocates and providers to be more thoughtful of the diversity of our population — and the experiences that affect our mental well-being — moving forward.
This will not be an easy endeavor for an area that struggles to attract mental health professionals and provide services — but it is critical 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 Latino-created, Latino-led advocacy organizations working in Lake, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties.