Latino advocates push for culturally competent mental health care
Executive director of Voces Unidas de las Montañas discusses the importance of healing trauma related to law enforcement
Eagle County law enforcement agencies’ response to mental health issues, as well as the broader community support structures they rely on, have struggled to meet the needs of the local Latino community.
Latinos and local immigrant populations are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured and less likely to be able to access “culturally competent” mental health care, said Alex Sánchez, executive director of local nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas.
Eagle County has made impressive strides in addressing behavioral health challenges and providing law enforcement agencies with the support those agencies need to respond to underlying mental health needs appropriately. However, local Latinos have been largely left out of the conversation, Sánchez said.
“It’s great that we have additional funding,” he said. “It’s great that we passed some initiatives, but at the end of day, the very people who need these services have not been at the table — are not making the choices and decisions as to how this money is being used, as to what programs and what services should be offered by whom and with what cultural competency.
“The data is there, we know who it’s working for because that’s what we capture,” Sánchez added. “Who is it not working for? That’s really the question.”
Sánchez also oversees the Voces Unidas Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. Both are based in Glenwood Springs and engage in advocacy work to “build community power” among historically disenfranchised Latino populations in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, he said.
Nearly a third of Eagle County residents identify as Latino. Among school-aged children, that statistic is over 52%, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and a 2021 report from Eagle County School District. The district’s report states that around 32% of students are learning English as their second language, more than double the state average.
Yet, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health has just three bilingual behavioral health specialists working to serve local Spanish speakers among the 40 it has onboarded in the community.
Just over $250,000 of a special marijuana sales tax fund dedicated to mental health initiatives have been dedicated to Spanish-language programming in Eagle County.
These funds went to support staff for the MIRA Bus, a traveling RV that offers public health resources, as well as mental health first aid training for the local Latino community, according to data provided by Vail Health. The money also supported counseling services from La Cocina, a local nonprofit that seeks to improve access to “traditional and nontraditional forms of mental health and health equity support services.”
The leaders of local law enforcement agencies said they have hired more Latino and bilingual officers to better represent the population they serve. They have worked collaboratively with nonprofits and delivered resources for outreach in Spanish-speaking communities.
But Sánchez said it simply has not been enough to meet the need for culturally competent mental health support and heal the “generational trauma” that many Latinos and immigrant populations carry around with them each day, which can be triggered in interactions with law enforcement.
“Yet again, people of color are the ones who fall through the cracks because of good intentions, poor execution, inadequate impact,” he said. “If you fix it for the lowest denominator — those individuals who have the most needs — you’re going to fix it for everyone above them.”
It is incumbent on police officers to understand the kinds of trauma that are present within the communities they serve. Local immigrants, for example, are often exposed to three waves of trauma, Sánchez said.
“First one is in their home country. The second set of traumas is the journey. The third set of trauma is while you’re here,” he said. “Imagine being an undocumented parent having to kiss your children goodbye every single morning and not knowing if you’re going to be able to see them again. That’s real. That’s what trauma looks like and that’s the reality of humans in our community.”
Local law enforcement must send a strong message that they are here to serve and protect everyone regardless of documentation status and that they will not cooperate with federal agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sánchez said.
His own mother was deported from El Jebel when he was just 6, so he understands firsthand the work that must be done to heal the impact of historical collaboration between local and federal agencies.
“If we don’t feel safe, we’re not going to call 911 when someone is in danger,” he said. “We’re not going to call someone when someone needs true law enforcement. So that’s bad public safety practices.”
Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer said local agencies understand the importance of sending this message and have taken steps to do so, specifically through the work of the county’s “law enforcement immigration alliance team.”
“We’ve explained how law enforcement works in our mountain communities, and we don’t care about the immigration status,” Staufer said. “But that still exists in minds of people and, unfortunately, some of these individuals have had very undesirable contact with law enforcement either in their former country or in another state, and the idea of law enforcement now resonates in that experience that they have had.”
“It is not a completely unwarranted fear just because of some of the history that we have endured,” he continued. “While many, many police organizations in our country are extremely professional, just like many of our Colorado police agencies, it just takes one or two incidents from an ill-trained department, or a department that hasn’t signed on to some of the professional variables that we adhere by on a daily basis, to tarnish that.”
Sánchez acknowledges progress in recent years. Voces Unidas supports the county’s co-response model, which dispatches mental health clinicians alongside first responders on mental health-related calls.
“Instead of being reactive and sending law enforcement to do what’s clearly a mental health issue, bring in professionals who know how to work with people who are going through a crisis and actually can respond to those needs,” he said.
However, models like these are “only as good as they are culturally competent and can meet the various needs of the very diverse constituencies that live in Eagle County,” Sánchez said.
The Hope Center hired four bilingual clinicians this summer: One was assigned to the crisis response team, and the other three are working in local schools, said Carrie Benway, the agency’s executive director, in an emailed statement.
This means that, out of the crisis response team’s eight clinicians, one clinician speaks Spanish and identifies as Latino, said Dr. Teresa Haynes, the Hope Center’s clinical director.
When the team’s bilingual staff member is not working, the crisis response team relies on an interpreter service called Interpreters Unlimited to deliver care across linguistic barriers, Haynes said. In other situations, they might rely on bilingual first responders to communicate.
Haynes acknowledged this method is “not ideal” and said that finding more bilingual staff tops the Hope Center’s priority list. The agency strives to offer trainings on diversity, inclusion and culturally competent care, she said.
“There’s a huge push in the field of psychology be like, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ We developed this treatment, but we just kind of did it and said, ‘OK, it’s great for everyone’ — but no, it’s actually not,” Haynes said.
“Western medicine historically is very standardized treatment across all cultures, which is not appropriate or effective,” she said.
It remains challenge as the valley faces a shortage of bilingual and bicultural mental health clinicians, but Haynes said they are always on the lookout.
“Ideally, we will continue to add bilingual clinicians to our team to best serve the community,” Benway said.
Collaboration between the Hope Center and law enforcement has brought improvements regarding mental health, Staufer said. Calls related to mental health crises have gone down, and the amount of people who are reaching out for preventative care has gone up, he said.
Still, this collaborative approach will not meet the needs of large swaths of the population if the right people don’t have a seat at the table, Sánchez said.
“We continue to call on all of those in the ecosystem, all of those entities where the power lies to make sure that they’re more equitable, to make sure that the leaders making those choices reflect the very population that they intend to serve,” Sánchez said. “Otherwise, it’s just going to continue to be a cycle where we’re going to miss the mark and I think that’s been the history of a lot of these counties and that’s been the history of our valley.”
This responsibility is not lost on local law enforcement officials.
“There are injustices throughout everything in society, but we’re kind of on the front lines of a lot of it, and we’re definitely being watched, as we should,” said Vail Police Commander Craig Bettis. “We’re going to continue to become better at what we do.”
Ideally, Eagle County should get to a point where police are gradually less involved in addressing mental health concerns in the community, Sánchez said.
“The big chunk of the mental health work that needs to happen is not going to happen in that setting,” he said. “The vast amount of mental health work really should be proactive, intentional and culturally competent.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org