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Supporting Latinx mental health

An innovative mental health program seeks to overcome barriers for the Latinx community

April 8, 2022

Access to mental health is considered a human right, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, many members of the Latinx community in Los Angeles – especially undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America – are particularly vulnerable to accessing mental health services because of several barriers, including lack of medical insurance, their immigration status keeping them from seeking care and the cultural stigma surrounding mental health issues.

In order to address these barriers and offer mental health services in a safe space to this vulnerable population, the Consulate of Mexico in Los Angeles launched a unique mental health program in 2017 called “Módulo de Salud Mental” (Mental Health Module).

Members of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles and staff from the mental health program at an event in October 2019.
Members of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles and staff from the mental health program at an event in October 2019.

Paula Helu-Brown, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Mount Saint Mary’s University, was one of the masterminds behind this project, which seeks to raise awareness about the most common mental health illnesses that affect the Latinx population living in Los Angeles. Helu-Brown and her faculty advisor at the time, Concepcion Barrio, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at USC, were tasked by then Mexican Consul General Carlos Garcia de Alba to develop the first program of its kind in Los Angeles, which boasts the largest Mexican-origin population outside of Mexico.  

Following an initial mental health screening of a potential client, the program offers up to 12 free individual or group therapy sessions at the consulate’s facilities to address common mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic disorders. At the end of the treatment, the client can be referred to one of the partnership agencies for further support if needed. In addition, the program also serves as an outreach and psychoeducational opportunity to increase mental health awareness in the community and address the stigma of receiving therapy. 

“We started this project in 2017. During that time, there was a lot of fear, and we saw that anxiety and depression increased significantly among the Latinx community," Helu-Brown said. "People were fearful to receive health services at doctors’ offices and many didn’t have insurance. As a sovereign territory where US authorities can’t intervene, the Mexican Consulate provides a safe space for people who otherwise would not seek psychological support,” she explained.

As a bilingual-bicultural licensed professional of Mexican origin with extensive experience in Latinx mental health services, Helu-Brown’s background and expertise were crucial to developing a program that meets the mental health needs of a marginalized population in an unconventional setting.

“I’m involved in many different projects, but this program is what I’m most proud of because of its strong social justice component,” said Helu-Brown. “As a documented immigrant, I’ve been very privileged and I wanted to use that privilege to help others in my community and make sure they have these opportunities to be well and thrive regardless of their circumstances.”

Yaneth Puentes ’19 worked in the consulate’s program while pursuing her master’s in counseling psychology at the Mount. Puentes was the office coordinator and representative of the program at the consulate, and she was tasked with providing information about the program’s services, sharing mental health community resources and setting up therapy appointments.

“I accepted the offer to work side by side with Dr. Helu-Brown in the Módulo de Salud Mental to help make a difference and connect with the members of the community that are near and dear to me,” said Puentes. “As an immigrant to this country myself, along with most of my family, I am a witness to the importance of mental health access and services needs in LA County.”

Although the program had to stop its in-person services for a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the therapy services restarted last September. The Módulo has provided mental health services to over 500 clients since it was created.

“I am grateful for the experience and loved to be able to make even a small difference to help the community,” Puentes said. “Dr. Helu-Brown’s passion for mental health, providing services to the underserved and making a difference in the community, really inspired me to continue doing my part on this path as a bilingual associate marriage and family therapist.”

Ribbon cutting ceremony of “Módulo de Salud Mental” in 2017, with professor Paula Helu-Brown (first from right), the previous Mexican Consul Carlos García de Alba (next to Helu-Brown), and other members of the Mexican Consulate.
Ribbon cutting ceremony of “Módulo de Salud Mental” in 2017, with professor Paula Helu-Brown (first from right), the previous Mexican Consul Carlos García de Alba (next to Helu-Brown), and other members of the Mexican Consulate.