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Spanish-speaking counselors from College help fill community need

Kristen B. Morales

December 20, 2016

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A team of counseling psychology graduate students led by a University of Georgia professor is improving the availability of mental health care for the Athens-area Latino population.

Edward Delgado-Romero, a professor in the department of counseling and human development services in the UGA College of Education, recently launched two counseling programs at local clinics. By bringing six bilingual doctoral-level students into the community, dozens of locals have had access to counselors in their native language.

Prior to the programs, Delgado-Romero said, he and one other mental health professional were the only licensed bilingual counselors in the five-county area.

"The work is so difficult and so taxing," said Delgado-Romero, noting that bilingual mental health professionals have a high turnover rate. Counselors are often working with an uninsured population and there is no extra time allotted for transcribing notes into English. And, in general, clients are dealing with extremely complex situations.

"There is a lot of trauma—there are things that happened back home that maybe people were fleeing or a lot of domestic violence, and almost none of the clients have gotten any help," he said. "And because there's not a lot of providers who speak Spanish, people bring their kids but can't be completely candid because their kids are the translators."

The work also allows the graduate students to gain valuable clinical experience, which is a requirement for their degree. While they could choose to earn their hours anywhere, by working with the local Latino population the students are helping an underserved population while gaining valuable real-world experience in a bilingual setting.

In addition to outreach programs in local neighborhoods, Delgado-Romero and his team are seeing clients at the Athens Latino Center for Education and Services and Mercy Health Center.

At ALCES, which works almost exclusively with the area's Latino population, Delgado-Romero oversees graduate students as they work with Spanish-speaking clients. Clients are seen on a little- to no-cost sliding scale. No client is turned away and all proceeds are donated back to ALCES. A second program at Mercy, which sees patients who have no insurance, is part of a larger counseling effort launched last year with fellow UGA professor Linda Campbell.

Delgado-Romero also takes his graduate students to neighborhoods and Latino centers. "We try to go out in the community, wherever there's a need," he added. "We do what we can."

Kristi Gilleland, director of whole person care at Mercy Health Center, said the addition of mental health services addresses a need expressed by nearly half of their entire patient population. A 2012 patient survey found that nearly 50 percent of Mercy's patients had a mental health need or diagnosis.

"Within that, we looked at the Latino population and found that population was receiving little to no care," she said. And while it's nearly impossible for someone who is undocumented to find funding for a counselor, she said it's not much easier for someone who qualifies for government services. "For those with legal status, finding a therapist who shared a language was nonexistent."

Gilleland said the graduate student counselors who now volunteer at Mercy see about seven patients. While that number may seem low, she noted that about 12 percent of Mercy's 3,200 patients are Latino, and any counseling services are better than not offering any at all.

Mercy's entire mental health team includes 16 professionals, about 14 of whom are UGA students. The experience counts as clinical hours that are necessary for graduate-level training.

"We've definitely seen an increase in benefits in just the short time we've offered the service," Gilleland added. "The partnership has been incredible, and working with Ed, Linda Campbell and (fellow professor) Bernadette Hickman—they have been instrumental in bringing students here and expanding mental health services for our patients."

The mental health services, says Delgado-Romero, are often a component of greater health issues faced by members of the Latino community. But slowly, through word-of-mouth and neighborhood-level outreach, Delgado-Romero and his students are introducing themselves to new patients and chipping away at the overwhelming caseload.

"Often it's this intersection of medical and psychological," he said. "There's often two facets—trauma along the immigration route, just repeated trauma, raped, being robbed, being exploited. There's a lot—almost every case. Another thing we're seeing is that almost every single person we see has physical problems. Living a life of uncertainty takes its toll on your health."