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July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

As the founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, I wanted to address you all during Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. 109 members strong, our caucus works to educate Members of Congress and their staff on the work still needed to expand mental health access and protections, reduce stigma, and promote bipartisan mental health legislation, especially during this public health emergency.

The topic of mental health in Congress is “building momentum,” yet, mental health still affects millions in the minority communities and remains underfunded and misunderstood. Prior to this public health emergency, only 1 in 20 individuals from the Hispanic community received services from a mental health specialist, largely due to long-standing stigma and health disparities. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the already existing mental health crisis, as we are seeing how fear and anxiety about the pandemic can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions for our constituents. We must tackle these hurdles.

If we address mental health stigma and services early, we can help students and families of color succeed in and out of the classroom. I know this first-hand from my own direct local involvement. After learning 1 in 3 Latina adolescents, age 9 to 11, had contemplated suicide—higher than any other demographic—I secured half a million dollars in federal seed money from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2001. Partnering with local health nonprofit, Pacific Clinics in Los Angeles County, we started the successful Latina Youth Suicide Prevention and Intervention Program with that grant, with the original aim to address Latina youth. Schools were resistant at first because of stigma; however, the program which began in one high school and three middle schools, has since grown to 35 schools with a waiting list. The program is now funded by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

This program serves as a model for H.R. 1109, the Mental Health Services for Students Act, which would provide $200 million for 100 school-based mental health programs nationwide. While schools work to navigate this pandemic, it is also important that we provide them with the resources to create a mental health plan to reach their students during this stressful time.

To further address stigma I introduced H.R. 4543, the Reducing Mental Health Stigma in the Hispanic Community Act. The bill directs SAMHSA to develop and implement an outreach and education strategy to promote behavioral and mental health among Hispanic and Latino populations. Machismo and other cultural tendencies are still preventing members of the Hispanic community from being open and honest about what might be troubling them. This legislation reinforces the message that there is absolutely zero shame in asking for help and that seeking support is a sign of strength. By reducing stigma, we are opening doors to life-saving care for those who need it most.

I wanted to also address the horrible conditions I’ve seen firsthand in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities at the border. We have all been horrified by the cruel separation of families at the border and the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in detention facilities. However, this only shows part of the nightmare. Less visible is the suffering occurring inside of these individuals. Many asylum seekers have endured trauma in their home countries, only to be further traumatized at the border and mistreated by officers.

I have introduced H.R. 6075, the Immigrants’ Mental Health Act which would expand access to trauma-informed mental health care to immigrants and develop a training curriculum for CBP agents to identify mental health risk factors and warning signs in immigrants. This legislation would also critically further prevent federal agencies from sharing an immigrant’s confidential mental health therapy notes for asylum determinations, immigration hearings, or deportation proceedings.

Our work continues but cannot be limited to Congress. We encourage all of you to get involved, to continue to educate your elected officials on the issues, and to share resources with friends and family. If you see someone who has fallen on hard times, help them out and refer them to mental health services. Together we can strengthen the mental well-being of the Hispanic community and all minority communities and eventually live in a world where there is NO STIGMA.

 

Grace F. Napolitano (CA-32)
Member of Congress
Co-Chair, Mental Health Caucus

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