Students Help Immigrants With Mental Health Care : Shots - Health News Latinos who have recently arrived in the U.S. often have a hard time getting access to health care, including mental health care. Several universities are enlisting graduate students to help.

Students Fill A Gap In Mental Health Care For Immigrants

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Immigrants from Latin America who have recently arrived in the U.S. often have poor access to health care in general and to mental health treatment in particular. The University of North Carolina, Charlotte is one of several universities trying to change that. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic brings us this report.

PATRICIA BECERRIL: (Speaking Spanish).

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Patricia Becerril comes to Bethesda Health Center in North Charlotte every other week. It's no easy trip.

BECERRIL: (Speaking Spanish).

KATHERINE WILKIN: It takes her two hours to get here. She takes two buses, so coming here, she's definitely devoted to getting this treatment. She comes every time.

TOMSIC: Translating is UNC Charlotte master's student Katherine Wilkin. She's Becerril's mental health counselor, and Becerril says she's helped her deal with depression.

BECERRIL: (Speaking Spanish.)

WILKIN: With therapy, she's gotten able to organize her thoughts and feelings, and she feels better, not frustrated, less stressed.

TOMSIC: Becerril initially came to this free clinic for diabetes treatment. Director Wendy Pascual says primary care is often the starting point for patients here, most of whom are immigrants.

WENDY PASCUAL: One thing that we have been seeing year across year is that many patients came here with physical problem but really are mental health problem.

TOMSIC: Meanwhile, a counseling professor at UNC Charlotte named Daniel Gutierrez was looking to get more involved in the community. So a colleague put him and Pascual in touch, and they set up a partnership last year. Eight or so master's or Ph.D. students in counseling or psychology provide treatment. They're unpaid. It's part of their training. Some speak Spanish. Some use an interpreter. Gutierrez says they see a variety of issues.

DANIEL GUTIERREZ: The big three we keep finding are depression, high levels of anxiety and then high levels of trauma.

TOMSIC: And the clinic's focus on the immigrant community means treating many people who are uninsured and are often here illegally.

GUTIERREZ: Latinos, although they're experiencing a lot of these mental health concerns, they are least likely to be able to get services.

TOMSIC: There are similar partnerships at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Georgia and the University of Denver. In Oregon, Professor Shahana Koslofsky is involved in one at Pacific University.

SHAHANA KOSLOFSKY: We were wanting to train our students to be able to respond from a more culturally informed model in general.

TOMSIC: And Koslofsky says that the need was great among Latinos who often face a language barrier and may have had a traumatic trip from their home country.

KOSLOFSKY: There are stories of sexual assaults and rapes that happen during border crossings. And then there's more cumulative experiences of growing up in poverty or dealing with drug cartels or gangs or - some people have difficult experiences in their country of origin.

TOMSIC: Pacific University has around 20 master's and Ph.D. students providing counseling at any given time. Even with that, she says Latinos face waiting lists for treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

TOMSIC: Back in Charlotte, a handful line up the one day a week the clinic's Ana Farrera signs up new patients.

ANA FARRERA: The thing is that the rain must have scared them away today (laughter). Because usually we have, like - last week we had, like, 10 people, so I had to turn five away.

TOMSIC: Farrera says there have been some mornings where 20 people line up before she opens the door. They're mostly waiting for primary care, but Farrera says many will get referred to the UNC Charlotte students for counseling. She says the students are making a big difference at the clinic. Student Katherine Wilkin says it works the other way too.

WILKIN: For me it's been good because that experience hasn't been just the easiest client I can think of that we read about in textbooks. I feel very comfortable building up from this.

TOMSIC: So do UNC Charlotte professors. Later this year, the University plans to scale up the partnership with Bethesda Health Center. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.

SIEGEL: And that story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, WFAE and Kaiser Health News.

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