A Decade of Combating Disparities in Mental Health Care

November 01, 2016

Cassandra Guercia, Mari Carmen Bennasar, PsyD, Paola Michelle Contreras, PsyD, Yayci Patino, Lizette Santana and Maria Popoteur celebrate 10 years of the Latino Mental Health Program.

Fifteen years ago (2001), a report of the Surgeon General from the Department of Health and Human Services indicated the existence of wide disparities based on ethnicity and race in the provision of mental health care in the US. But, the professional mental health community was not surprised. They already knew the shortage of "competent" caregivers equipped with both sensitivities, language skills and credentials was dire. As a result, a specialized program was created to train students to provide services to individuals of Latino backgrounds. In September 2006, the College accepted its first group of students, and the number of applicants and graduates has grown each year.

The Latino Mental Health Program (LMHP) was named for Dr. Cynthia Lucero, a William James College alumna from Ecuador who died in 2002 at the age of 28 after collapsing during the Boston Marathon. Lucero was a community-oriented young woman with a strong passion and commitment to serving underserved populations, especially of Latino background. She felt more people should be able to provide culturally sensitive and Spanish-speaking care to Latino people. The program that bears her name and celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, trains students to provide culturally sensitive services and meet the mental health needs of Latinos in the US. It teaches culturally appropriate interventions in working with Latinos, and it assists in strengthening Spanish-language skills with the Ecuador immersion program, where Lucero's parents continue to welcome William James students.

Sra. Martha Lucero, the late Cynthia Lucero's mother, receives a special award recognizing the support she and husband, Hector, have given the LMHP program for the past 10 years.

Sra. Martha Lucero, the late Cynthia Lucero’s mother, receives a special award recognizing the support she and husband, Hector, have given the LMHP program for the past 10 years.

"We're the oldest program of its kind in the country,""says Director, Mari Carmen Bennasar, PsyD. "Its mission and vision are linked to Cynthia's name and her values and with the mission of the College to serve underserved communities." Having already graduated around 60 students, the program offers degrees at two levels, both Masters and Doctorate, in Counseling, School Psychology and Clinical Psychology. Surprisingly, 40 percent of the students are non-Latino. "I respect and appreciate the students who learn fluency in a second language and want to gain the skills to work with the Latino populations," says Bennasar. "Our students gain a flexibility, an openness, a powerful but invisible skill of building trusting relationships." She describes the importance of body language, warmth, touch and eye contact in training a student to be effective with Latino individuals. With an emphasis on academics, field service and the summer immersion of one month living with a family in Ecuador, the program has trained exceptionally skilled providers. It's absolutely made a difference and has served many local communities that would otherwise remain neglected.

"It's absolutely made a difference and has served many local communities that would otherwise remain neglected." ­
-Mari Carmen Bennasar, PsyD, Director of the Latino Mental Health Program

The growing number of Latino refugees and new immigrants, especially unaccompanied minors, now enrolled in the Boston Public Schools, has presented a multitude of complex issues. "Our students and graduates hear stories of unspeakable horror," says Bennasar. "We recently heard about a young boy who escaped gang violence to return to his home in a small village to find it destroyed and his family murdered. Our students commonly have clients from South America, Central America and Mexico who have experienced terrible, traumatic events."

"This program is absolutely a success. I know that because other schools have sought our advice and consultation, and I am regularly asked to speak at national professional conferences." A member of the original planning group and a dear friend and supervisor of Cynthia's, Bennasar understandably admits, "I love what I do."