'A silent crisis': Latino community pushes Orange County for local mental health care

‘A silent crisis’: Latino community pushes Orange County for local mental health care

Migrating to North Carolina, away from her relatives in Mexico, took its toll on Diana Huerta.

“I have lived more than half my life here, finding myself alone in this country away from my family,” said Huerta, a member of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill. “I had depression and panic attacks. Often, I can’t find a purpose in my life. My struggle is constant.

Huerta spoke in Spanish at a forum hosted by the NC Congress of Latino Organizations and Orange County Justice United. The groups want Orange County health officials and county commissioners to do more to meet the mental health needs of the local Latino community.

“Outside of this building there are a lot of people who need help,” Huerta said. “This is a cry for help from our community.”

Speakers described struggling to find help for themselves and loved ones due to language barriers and cost.

“For many who are not part of the Hispanic community, this is unfortunately a silent crisis,” said Luis Royo, director of Hispanic ministries at St. Thomas More, to the packed church hall. Binkley Baptist.

Royo said his NCCLO member church has worked “duly to break the stigma of talking about mental health.”

“However, we know that when people finally have the courage to speak up and ask for help, they unfortunately don’t know where to turn,” he added.

Bilingual and bicultural suppliers sought

Data is sparse, Royo said, but cited county statistics from 2019 that showed “for Hispanics, there are more cases of hospitalization due to mental health issues.”

More bilingual psychologists and psychiatrists would help, said Juan Carlos Núñez, a St. Thomas More member who spoke at the forum.

“But if we had bilingual Hispanic therapists,” he said, “it would be much better because not only could they understand their patients, but they could understand them better.”

El Futuro, the Triangle’s leading bilingual mental health care provider, struggled to secure funding from Orange County and closed its Carrboro office nearly a decade ago. He still has clinics in Durham and Siler City in Chatham County.

“In the midst of my crisis, I turned to El Futuro for help,” Huerta said. “But there is always a long waiting list. I had to seek help from private therapists. But due to their high cost, I could not complete my treatment.

National statistics show that 57% of Latinos aged 18 to 25 and 40% of those aged 26 to 49 with serious mental illness did not receive treatment in 2018, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The NCCLO and Justice United have met with El Futuro staff, who have attended the forum, over the past year to discuss their challenges and possible solutions.

Problem with old provider

There are more than 13,000 Hispanic residents in Orange County, or about 9% of the population, according to U.S. Census data.

The county’s former state-appointed Medicaid mental health care provider, Cardinal Innovation, has failed to invest in the Latino community, NCCLO members said at the Nov. 17 forum.

The company has come under fire for its policy of denying Medicaid reimbursement for processing immigrants without legal status, INDY Week reported.

He was also investigated in 2017 by the state for using state funds for luxury spending and big bonuses, including raising the company’s CEO salary to $650,000. , three times the state limit, reported The Charlotte Observer.

Cardinal received complaints about patient care, as the North Carolina State Auditor investigated the company and funding was cut. Shortly after, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services took over the organization, NC Health News reported. The company merged with Asheville-based provider Vaya Health last year.

Orange County severed ties with the company and aligned with Alliance Health in December 2021 as the new public mental health care provider.

Public servants pledge to help

Through a Spanish interpreter, Orange County commissioners pledged to help address mental health needs.

“I, too, am passionate about the mental health of our entire community, and that certainly includes the Latinx community,” Commissioner Amy Fowler said.

Fowler said Alliance Health leaders committed to “providing culturally and linguistically appropriate care” in recent meetings.

Commissioners reminded people that the 988 emergency phone number can be dialed to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where help is available in Spanish.

At the forum, Sean Schreiber, COO of Alliance Health, publicly pledged to work over the next year to respond to proposals made by the NCCLO and Justice United.

These proposals call for:

A comprehensive guide to mental health resources for the Latino community in Orange County.

Spanish-speaking and “culturally sensitive” community health workers.

The gradual return of El Futuro to Orange County.

Group sessions and therapeutic workshops in Spanish.

Hire bilingual contractors for the crisis/diversion center proposed by the county.

Recruitment and retention of bilingual therapists.

“It is our duty and an honor to work with you,” Schreiber said.

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Profile photo of Aaron Sanchez-Guerra

Aaron Sánchez-Guerra is a breaking news reporter for The News & Observer and previously covered business and real estate for the paper. His experience includes reporting for WLRN Public Media in Miami and as a freelance journalist in Raleigh and Charlotte covering Latin American communities. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, a native Spanish speaker, and was born in Mexico. You can follow his work on Twitter at @aaronsguerra.

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