“Lo que pasa en la casa, se queda en la casa,” —what happens at home, stays at home. It’s a proverb often told when family issues arise, and one that the youth promoters of Latino Service Providers “Testimonios” program are familiar with, but want to change. They want to share what’s happening at home and in their lives and bring it out of the shadows.
These students are at the forefront of a radical program focused on combating the stigmas of mental health within Latino communities. “They’re learning about practices to best combat these stigmas,” says Stephanie Manieri, Program Manager. “By planting the seeds of hope, we can begin to combat and change these practices.”
The Testimonios program was created with the goal of training Sonoma County youth to act as health promoters, with a focus on mental health prevention and awareness. “Having youth spreading awareness catches people’s attention, it surprises people that we are able to help,” said Julitza Sumpango, a participant of the program.
This year’s cohort is the largest since its beginning 3 years ago, with 38 active students. Most of the youth are referred to the program through their social networks and school presentations. The students meet monthly and are paid for their work with stipends.
To participate in the program, they must be bi-cultural, bilingual and a student enrolled in a local high school, the Santa Rosa Junior College or Sonoma State University. Most of the students hope to enter the mental health workforce as therapists, social workers or doctors.
“This program is the perfect intersection of bilingualism, biculturalism and mental health awareness,” said Manieri. Many of the youth disclosed being drawn to participate in the program because of close experiences to mental health issues, either personally or with friends and family. “I have dealt with mental illness myself, with anxiety, and I didn’t realize how much it affected people until it happened to me,” shared student promoter Lizbeth Velasco.
According to Manieri, religious and cultural circumstances are some of the factors that have caused mental health issues to become a taboo conversation. Latinos access mental health services at a lower rate than other groups, even though there are shared experiences of trauma.
The promoters are learning about disaster preparedness in the context of mental health support and resources. The post-traumatic stress of the 2017 Tubbs fires – and now the Kincade fires – still linger within our community and recently many programs in Sonoma County have turned their focus to addressing those needs. Healthcare Foundation has created multiple community resources to address this including offering trauma-informed yoga and free counseling.
“It’s okay to branch out and ask for help. That’s not a bad thing,” said promoter Evelin Dominguez-Garcia. She believes that as part of the program, “educating at the root level will allow us to branch out with resources, and will help de-stigmatize not only mental health but reaching out for help.”
The success of the Testimonios program also lies in the model of peer to peer counseling, which according to the youth promoters, makes it easier to engage and educate their community. “When it’s an adult it feels like it’s been thrown upon you and lectured, whereas, with peer to peer, there’s someone my age who is going through it too,” said Dominguez-Garcia. “I hope more kids can access a program like this, not just in Sonoma County.”
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