Uvalde counselors fight mental health stigma in Latino community

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(UVALDE, Texas) – Grief is palpable in Uvalde, Texas, three months after the shooting at Robb Elementary School claimed the lives of 19 young students and two teachers.

The streets of the small town are lined with signs and murals honoring the 21 lives lost in the May 24 tragedy, reading “Uvalde Strong” and “Pray for Uvalde”. Locals frequent the memorial at the school where the massacre took place, getting lost in the mounds of photos, teddy bears, toys and books.

“This town is saturated with the remains of the dead,” said Sarah Almendariz, a counselor from San Antonio who comes to Uvalde weekly to work with children.

She has a list of victims’ names on the door of her consulting room and says, “I’ve had so many children who will tell me [multiple] the names of people they knew.

Uvalde was a sanity wasteland before tragedy struck, locals say.

Counseling services from across Texas arrived in the city in the weeks following the shooting to offer services to grieving residents still processing the loss.

They are working overtime, advisers say, not only to gain the trust of residents in the throes of immense grief, but also to combat the stigma of mental health care that runs deep in Latin American communities.

Uvalde is more than 72% Hispanic, according to the latest US Census figures.

With few counselors in town and limited resources, any resident seeking help before the tragedy might have had to drive more than an hour to get quality care.

Almendariz said she reached out to local leaders and organizations to find out what resources were available for her clients. There weren’t many, if at all.

Almendariz said a local organization gave him a document with resources in San Antonio, an hour and a half drive from Uvalde.

Some advisers also told ABC News that fewer people have asked for help than expected.

However, grief is not linear, Mary Beth Fisk, acting director of the Uvalde Strong Resiliency Center, told ABC News.

“It’s not really realistic to expect everyone to want advice right now, but it’s important to be there when you’re ready,” Fisk said.

Latinos and Mental Health Care

Hispanic adults are just as susceptible to mental health problems as other demographic groups, but are less likely to receive mental health care, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

This can be attributed to several factors, according to Lyssette Galvan, director of public policy for NAMI Texas.

“They don’t have health insurance, mental health education, or they don’t have the appropriate resources available in their community and in the language they need,” Galvan said.

The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness can shame people into not seeking help, Galvan said.

It can be difficult for Hispanic families to talk openly about their personal and family struggles for fear of judgment or discrimination.

“Traditionally, what happens at home stays at home,” Almendariz said. “What happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors.”

Experts say this stigma rules out the tools needed to address emotional or behavioral issues in the face of grief, loss and more.

“By raising awareness and educating the community, that’s when we’ll be able to break down those barriers and have that open dialogue that we really need for people to seek and get the treatment they need. need,” Galvan said.

Lack of access – not being able to easily find or receive care due to being uninsured or simply not living near facilities – is another factor.

About 25% of the city’s residents are uninsured and about 20% of people live in poverty, according to census figures, making it harder to access mental health care, especially when remote .

“If there’s not that presence in the city, it just makes it harder to get help. It’s a matter of timing, and often time equates to issues of money, work or child care,” said Marian Sokol, executive director of the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas.

Texas has been ranked as one of the worst states for access to mental health care in 2022, according to the nonprofit advocacy organization Mental Health America.

In April, Governor Greg Abbott transferred $210.7 million from Texas Health & Human Services, which oversees public mental health programs, to a security initiative at the Texas-Mexico border. The agency told ABC News the transfer of funds would not impact mental health programs.

Abbott announced in July a $1.25 million grant to the Uvalde School District to counsel students and teachers affected by the mass shooting.

Mental Health America said Texas has one school psychologist for every 4,962 students, though the recommended ratio is 1 to 500; one school social worker per 13,604 students, although the recommended ratio is 1:250; and one school counselor for every 423 students, with a recommended ratio of 1:250.

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District currently has several vacancies for school counselors and social workers.

Fixing a sanity wasteland

According to Sokol, counselors from the South Texas Children’s Bereavement Center were in Uvalde days after the school shooting.

They are one of many advisory groups that have come to the area from out of town to offer help.

Counselors in these groups say they have created a variety of spaces to meet the needs of each individual.

The Children’s Bereavement Center has transformed its counseling space into a home, complete with kitchen, dining room, living room and playroom.

The Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, a facility opened by the county after the shooting, offers several types of therapy, including art, music, poetry and movement therapy.

Give an Hour, a national non-profit organization, has a group of counselors in the El Progreso Memorial Library providing space for children to express themselves. They play with toys, eat snacks, and chat with counselors about whatever they want to discuss.

Many organizations also aim to hire counselors from across the greater Uvalde area, to ensure the community is served by people who know it well.

Yvonne Clark, founder of the nonprofit It’s Okay to Cry, says it’s important that all counselors “meet your clients where they are” — in churches, libraries and in town.

Creating safe spaces, respecting boundaries, and bridging the trust gap between counseling spaces and the community are what many counselors say helps the community heal.

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Maria D. Ervin