‘A silent crisis’: Latino community pushes Orange County for local, mental health care

North Carolina Council of Latino Organizations

Migrating to North Carolina, far from her relatives in Mexico, has taken its toll on Diana Huerta.

“I’ve lived more than half of my life here, finding myself alone in this country far from my family,” said Huerta, a member of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill. “I’ve experienced depression and panic attacks. Many times, I can’t find purpose in my life. My struggle is constant.”

Huerta spoke in Spanish during a forum held by the N.C. Congress of Latino Organizations and Orange County Justice United. The groups want Orange County health officials and the county commissioners to do more to address the local Latino community’s mental health needs.

“Outside this building, there are a lot of people who need help,” Huerta said. “This is a cry for help from our community.”

Speakers described struggling to find help for themselves and their loved ones because of language barriers and cost.

“For many who aren’t part of the Hispanic community, this is unfortunately a silent crisis,” Luis Royo, director of Hispanic ministries at St. Thomas More, told the packed room at Binkley Baptist Church.

Royo said his church, an NCCLO member, has worked “arduously to break the stigma of talking about mental health.”

“However, we know that when people finally have the courage to speak and seek help, they lamentably don’t know where to turn,” he added.

Bilingual, bicultural providers needed

Data is scarce, Royo said but cited 2019 county statistics that showed “for Hispanics, there are more hospitalization cases due to mental health issues.”

More bilingual psychologists and psychiatrists would help, said Juan Carlos Núñez, a St. Thomas More member who spoke at the forum.

“But if we had bilingual therapists who were Hispanic in origin,” he said, “it would be much better because not only would they be able to understand their patients, they could comprehend them better.”

El Futuro, the Triangle’s main bilingual mental health care provider, struggled for funding from Orange County and closed its Carrboro office almost a decade ago. It still has clinics in Durham and Siler City in Chatham County.

“In the midst of my crisis, I turned to El Futuro for help,” Huerta said. “But there’s always a long waiting list. I’ve had to seek help through private therapists. But due to their high cost, I haven’t been able to finish my treatment.”

National statistics show 57% of Latinos ages 18 to 25 and 40% percent ages 26 to 49 with serious mental illness did not receive treatment in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The NCCLO and Justice United have met with El Futuro staff, who attended the forum, over the past year to discuss their challenges and possible solutions.

Issue with previous provider

There are over 13,000 Hispanic residents in Orange County, about 9% of the population, U.S. Census data shows.

The county’s previous state-designated Medicaid mental health care provider, Cardinal Innovation, did not invest in the Latino community, NCCLO members said at the Nov. 17 forum.

The company was criticized for a policy denying Medicaid reimbursement for the treatment of immigrants without legal status, INDY Week reported.

It also was investigated in 2017 by the state for using public money for luxury expenses and big bonuses, including raising the salary of the company’s CEO to $650,000, three times higher than the state limit, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Cardinal received complaints about patient care, as the North Carolina state auditor investigated the company and funding was cut. Soon after, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services took over the organization, NC Health News reported.. The company merged with Asheville-based provider Vaya Health last year.

Orange County cut ties with the company and aligned with Alliance Health in December 2021 as its new public mental health care provider.

Officials commit to helping

Through a Spanish interpreter, Orange County commissioners pledged to help address the mental health needs.

“I too, am passionate about mental health of our entire community, and that certainly includes the Latinx community,” said Commissioner Amy Fowler.

Fowler said Alliance Health’s leaders have committed to “providing culturally competent and language-appropriate care” during recent meetings.

Commissioners reminded people that the emergency phone number 988 can be dialed to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where help is available in Spanish.

At the forum, Sean Schreiber, chief operating officer of Alliance Health, committed publicly to working next year to fulfill proposals made by the NCCLO and Justice United.

Those proposals call for:

A comprehensive mental health resource guide for the Orange County Latino community.

Spanish-speaking and “culturally responsive” community health workers.

The phased return of El Futuro to Orange County.

Spanish-language therapeutic group sessions and workshops.

Hiring bilingual providers to the county’s proposed Crisis/Diversion Center.

The recruitment and retention of bilingual therapists.

“It’s our duty and an honor to work with you,” Schreiber said.