Mental Health Awareness Month: Increasing access to mental health counseling through culturally responsive programs

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we connected with Abe Vega, Bilingual Mental Health Counselor at Central City Concern’s Puentes program to discuss how culturally responsive mental health programs are working to address the disparities that exist in mental health care for communities of color.

Abe is one of few bilingual, male therapists providing counseling services to Latinx/Hispanic populations in Multnomah County. When entering his social work program at Boston College, he immediately noticed the field was predominantly run by white women and very few men. This experience, coupled with his awareness of the difficulties that exist for communities of color looking to access counseling services, provided him with a clear direction of where he wanted to apply his professional skills and eventually led him to Puentes.

“Puentes is that door that folks can access to understand what mental health is. What is this service that’s free and that’s accessible? Central City Concern also has a role in other culturally specific programs. We have an African American culturally specific program that focuses services on helping Black folks. Our agency really focuses on how we can provide mental health services and care for these particular cultural populations, which can hopefully draw people to us, or maybe can serve as a calling for other organizations to focus on providing care to specific populations,” shared Abe.

Counseling can serve as an empowering experience for many, but unfortunately, accessing mental health services comes with significant barriers. Cost, therapist availability, difficulties navigating insurance, and cultural stigmas are a few of the obstacles faced by patients who are needing care. “We serve Spanish monolingual speakers, with many backgrounds, so from Latin America to Mexico, and many of these folks are also undocumented, so they usually don’t have insurance or a citizenship status. There aren’t many places in Multnomah County or in Oregon that provide free mental health services without zero barriers,” shared Abe about his program. Culturally responsive programs like Puentes, prioritize access to care and connect patients to therapists who not only speak their language but fully understand their cultural backgrounds and can build trustworthy relationships.

We encourage you all to continue to share resources that may be beneficial to communities of color seeking support with mental health not only during Mental Health Awareness Month but beyond. Our work, our ability to build healthy relationships, and our overall health and wellness are heavily dependent on the state of our minds and sharing resources is one easy way to ensure we continue to advocate for equal access to care.