Cultural backgrounds can often account for individual attitudes toward mental health treatment services. For instance, a parent whose child has mental or behavioral issues may not pursue needed treatment out of a belief that a therapist may not be sensitive to the child’s background.

Add to that a chronic shortage of therapists who are male or persons of color plus the inevitable complexities of navigating any new sort of health care system – entry points, insurance, communication – and the issue of providing mental health services to minority students becomes only more difficult.  

These issues surfaced in Oak Park and River Forest from a 2010 study that revealed “minorities have less access to, are less likely to use mental health services and report less positive outcomes.”

The Multicultural Behavioral Health Advocacy Commission (MBHAC) was created seven years ago to advocate for better behavioral health services and works with minority youth and families to provide mental health services and care coordination. The commission is part of the Oak Park Community Mental Health Board.

To address concerns over cultural competency on the part of a prospective therapist, MBHAC has undertaken cultural training of mental health pros and social service providers in the villages. 

Judith Hanna, an Oak Park therapist in private practice, has a special interest in cross-cultural experiences. Hanna said a certain level of cultural competency by the therapist can allay the reservations of families of color. 

As a clinician, Hanna has worked through MBHAC on efforts to destigmatize mental health services, especially for persons of color, she said during an interview in her office in downtown Oak Park.

“They kind of loop together — attacking stigma and cultural competency,” she said, “because we can encourage people to seek out help, but once they get there will they feel a connection, will they feel heard, accepted. And the system can be difficult” to navigate.

To help service providers better address the needs of these culturally diverse villages, many organizations have turned to cultural competency training. MBHAC enlisted Nile Gossett, an Oak Park resident and diversity consultant, to facilitate a series of trainings, in which Hanna participated.

So far there have been six sessions, Gossett said. Among participants were staff from several local organizations including Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society, Thrive Counseling Center and Riveredge Hospital. Sessions have covered unconscious bias and how it affects decision making, he said.

“I keep circling back to dealing with our youth,” said Gossett. “It always ends up being a broader discussion about the idea of stigma in the African American and Latino community [around] behavioral and mental health. And then we start breaking that down. Stigma’s too big a word. What does it mean? How does it manifest itself? How is stigma expressed? And what do people do in reaction to it? It’s really open and free-flowing. It’s an exchange of ideas as opposed to an exchange of facts.”

Hanna believes that everyone has “biases about what mental health is and what therapy is,” but Gossett gets everyone to reflect on their own biases at the workshops, she said.

From a therapist’s standpoint, Hanna said, “Cultural competency hits on several levels. We talk about what is the client demographic? Do clinicians reflect that demographic? One of the things about cultural competency is making sure that the services provided are accessible to and appropriate to persons of color. And to that end, what is the makeup of the agency itself?”

She also noted that, in general, the mental health field is “always in need of male clinicians and persons of colors.”

Hanna heads the committee within MBHAC focused on addressing stigma and one of her tasks is to collect data where she can. “All I could use this time was my own practice,” she said, “and I noticed in the four years I’ve been here, I have more persons of color.”

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SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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