When Joise Garzon embarked on her career several years ago after completing Rhode Island College’s Master of Social Work program, colleagues and acquaintances would ask her for referrals to Spanish-speaking behavioral health providers.
Often, she wasn’t able to help.
Back then, Garzon says, she only knew of two providers who spoke Spanish, and their schedules were usually filled. And it didn’t appear that the situation was going to change anytime soon. Garzon remembers how she was the only Latinx in her cohort of students and she interacted with few faculty members of color in RIC’s social work program.
Since then, the shortage of bilingual mental health professionals has only persisted.
A 2021 report by the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island found that the state’s behavioral health care workforce falls short of representing the racial, cultural and ethnic diversity of Rhode Island.
The report’s survey showed that almost 99% of providers spoke English in a professional setting, but just 8% spoke Spanish.
Behavioral health leaders say those within Latino communities face challenges such as immigration, acculturation and generational conflicts that contribute to their mental health. Also, many say that seeking mental health care remains stigmatized within those communities even as the needs continue to grow.
“Seeking behavioral health treatment is a courageous decision,” said MHARI Executive Director Laurie-Marie Pisciotta. “Behavioral health services save lives.”
While the report acknowledged there were limits with its survey sample, almost 85% of behavioral health care providers identified as white compared with just over 68% of clients they treated. This data was also highlighted in the association’s 2022 report on Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Rhode Island, which noted the importance of having both a linguistically and racially diverse provider pool.
Now the Atrévete Center of Excellence for Latinx/Hispanic Social Work Practice within Rhode Island College’s School of Social Work is aiming to deepen the diversity among providers.
“This meets a need for the community to generate more Latinx Spanish-speaking social workers in the field, but it also meets a need in the program,” said Garzon, co-director of the center and assistant professor of social work.
The center opened over the summer and was supported with a grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, which provided $650,000 in the first year and could grant an additional three years of funding.
The center’s leaders say they have recruited 12 students this fall and aim to add 55 trained bilingual behavioral health care providers to the state’s labor force by 2027.
“We are investing so that we are building the capacity within the state to deliver culturally responsive care because there is a mental health crisis that started with the pandemic and it’s continuing,” said Jayashree Nimmagadda, the center’s founder and a professor of social work.
Among the center’s key initiatives are recruiting and retaining more Latino faculty members to the school, as well as developing community partnerships, Nimmagadda says.
The center has partnered with agencies, including the Rhode Island Free Clinic and Clinica Esperanza/Hope Clinic, where the students are able to go and to get hands-on practice in providing bilingual mental health care that is supervised by a licensed Latino clinical social worker.
In addition, some students within the center are also researching evidenced-based mental health practices for those in the Latino community, Garzon says.
The center’s leaders have also been connecting with guidance counselors at local middle and high schools to introduce more students to the field of social work earlier in their academic careers, Nimmagadda says.
Also, the center is aiming to include more culturally informed practices into the curriculum across the entire school of social work, says Vilna Tejeda, co-director of the center and assistant professor in the college’s Master of Social Work program.
Tejeda says this is important because while gaps to access of mental health care have been partly addressed through partnerships with community service providers, offering culturally sensitive services will help keep clients while also improving their care.
“The pieces I think are important to look at are the delivery of care and the quality of care,” Tejeda said. “We are emerging and actually feeding into the [programs] … so that we can integrate a practice that’s going to be sensitive and culturally informed so that when we have the clients, we can retain them.”
Aswood Bousseau, a RIC associate professor and the center’s faculty development adviser, emphasizes the importance of teaching students in the School of Social Work to be sensitive to a variety of cultural backgrounds and notes that the center aligns with the college’s Hispanic Serving Institution status it earned last year.
“Now not only can we say we’re the Hispanic Serving Institution, we’re actually now developing programs that are pushing that agenda forward,” Bousseau said.