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May 25, 2022
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Politics

For Immigrants Facing Mental Health Crisis, the White House Might Have a Plan

Culture-sensitive mental health professionals and immigrant youth activists speak out...

On May 18, Selena Gomez joined first lady Jill Biden and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the White House for a conversation about youth mental health. The ‘White House Conversation on Youth Mental Health’ event hosted by the Biden-Harris administration (HHS) and Viacom convened 30 youth mental health activists from across the country to develop new, creative ideas to support the mental health and wellbeing of young Americans. America is facing a national mental health crisis and immigrants should be factored into the White House agenda aimed at tackling this crisis. Jazmine Wildcat, Jorge Alvarez, Diana Chao, Mahmoud Khedr and Juan Acosta were part of the 30 youth mental health activists on the panel. They teared up when sharing their mental health stories and the role being an immigrant or from a BIPOC house-hold played in navigating their journey and finally finding their voices. Immigrants, first-generation diaspora or persons of color from multicultural backgrounds face mental health challenges that aren't being widely discussed, so having these youth with such backgrounds represented at the White House was remarkable. 

The event was in support of President Biden’s ‘Unity Agenda’ and the administration’s efforts to address the unprecedented rise of America’s mental health crisis. The initial mention of the ‘Unity Agenda’ was at President Biden’s first State of the Union which addressed this crisis among people of all ages.  The agenda highlighted the fact that Black and Brown (multicultural) communities are disproportionately undertreated – even as their burden of mental illness has continued to rise. Of these minority groups, the immigrant population remains greatly underserved. 

Image: Adedayo Fashanu at the WH with Jazmine Wildcat (R) , Diana Chao (R) Mahmoud Khedr (R) , Juan Acosta (L) and Jorge Alvarez (L)

In my conversation with Diana Chao, a 23-year-old first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, she said, “as a first-generation immigrant, especially growing up beneath the poverty line with parents who didn’t speak English, it’s very hard to find resources for people who look like me.” Chao explained of her own mental health journey, saying she never felt more alone. It was  why she began a nonprofit, Letters to Strangers, to create a safe space after her own diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a psychosomatic disease that left her episodically blind at age 13. What started as a small student club at Chao’s high school, has now grown into the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit, which impacts more than 35,000 people every year on six continents. 

According to Maryland Mental health practitioner and founder of Miso Medical Center, Ifeoma C. Onyia, "immigrants experiencing mental health crises often feel alone mainly because of cultural factors hindering them from speaking up. Miso Medical Center bridges the gap in this culture of health disparities that we suffer in this great nation. Hence, particularly focus on minorities, youth and low income families" 

 “I came to the States when I was 12 years old and I faced the next decade lonely and depressed. I got to a point where I thought the only way to end the pain was to end my life" said Mahmoud Khedr. 

Mahmoud who spoke on the panel is an Egyptian Immigrant and CEO of Floramind.com, a mental health organization with a mission of  "empowering young people through mental health education in schools and places they frequent". Mohmoud is also a member of a group called 'Hidden Healers' who are focused on culturally ground healing. A group which he stated  was founded on giving every person who has struggled with mental illness a platform to share their stories. 

Bode Akadri, a Baltimore based therapist and founder of Victory Community Outreach International highlighted that “Immigrants face challenging post migration circumstances, such as separation from family, cultural and linguistic barriers, and adjustment to a new, and sometimes unwelcoming, environment. These stressors may exacerbate existing mental health problems or initiate new concerns. For instance, immigrants who experience acculturative stress, a term used to describe post migration challenges, are more likely to become anxious or depressed”

Jorge Alvarez used on-campus mental health resources to grow Active Minds into the largest mental health organization at Rutgers. He shares his self-healing journey with his 140,000 TikTok followers and engages in advocacy work. When it came to his own healing from depression, “the biggest barrier to entry was not having someone who looked like me—a Latino male,” he said, noting he was taught to never talk about mental health and his work is “pushing against everything I was raised with.”

Born in Mexico, Juan Acosta came to the States at age two.

“Growing up, I faced language barriers which led to me getting bullied in school. When I came out, the bullying got worse. What I experienced at home was seeing my parents really struggle to keep up with bills in a country that wasn't their own. I remember repressing a lot of my emotions because I knew as immigrants that they were struggling as well and I didn't want to share with them what I was going through because I didn't feel like I was as important as the other struggles they had at the time.” 

Jazmine Wildcat, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming disclosed a diagnosis of anxiety and depression and is working to open the conversation about mental health in her community and helping her school better handle the health of its students.

“On the reservation it’s not really talked about,” she said. “I’ve lost peers and I’ve been to way too many funerals and I don’t want anyone else to go through what they did.”

So, what is the White House ‘Unity Agenda’ really tackling and how can immigrants, BIPOC and minorities benefit from this agenda?

I took a look at the Unity Agenda and noted a few vital findings beneficial to culture-sensitive mental health professionals. The agenda outlines a plan to strengthen system capacity by dramatically expanding the supply, diversity, and cultural competency of mental health and substance use disorder workforce – from psychiatrists to psychologists, peers to paraprofessionals – and increase both opportunity and incentive for them to practice in areas of highest need. In respect, the Biden-Harris administration plans to invest in proven programs that will bring providers into behavioral health fields. 

Image: President Biden delivering his SOTU address at the Capitol, March 1, 2022(Saul Loeb, Pool via AP)

The President’s FY23 budget is set to invest $700 million in programs – like the National Health Service Corps, Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program, and the Minority Fellowship Program – that provide training, access to scholarships and loan repayment to mental health and substance use disorder clinicians committed to practicing in rural and other underserved communities. The plan will bring major new investments and will both expand the pipeline of behavioral health providers and improve their geographic distribution to target areas with the greatest unmet need.  The plan also includes a new pilot approach to train a more diverse group of paraprofessionals instead of leaving the work to only Doctors, nurses, and other clinicians. This fall, HHS is expected to award over $225 million in training programs to increase the number of community health workers and other health support workers providing services, including behavioral health support, in underserved communities. The administration’s FY23 budget also proposes a major new multi-year funding to develop provider capacity and support mental health transformation. 

The visionary behind the non-profit My Covenant Place (MCP), LaTisha Carter, expressed her hopes about the plans saying,  “I would love to see this administration address the crisis disparities of Black led organizations that serve BIPOC which have been historically and significantly underfunded and find a more long term equitable solution.” 

Thomas Tanue, founder of Dedicated Care Health Services (DCHS) with multiple mental health facilities located in DC and Virginia, also commented on the Biden-Harris agenda saying, “government has the overall role through policies to make things happen. Government also can do better in providing funding that increases the accessibility of mental health services to everyone including those who are non-documented or have no insurance.  For example Medicaid  pays for those low income permanent residents or citizens…”

With the Unity Agenda of the Biden-Harris administration and the unprecedented rise of America’s mental health crisis, it is my hope that more culture-sensitive mental health professionals can rightly access the funding the administration is set to put out to particularly cater to the mental healthcare of immigrants and BIPOC communities that are underserved. 

Highlighted in this article are DMV Based Culture-Sensitive Mental Health Practices Serving BIPOC, Immigrants and Minorities based in the DMV.
Special thanks to the youth voices for talking with TANTV and to the four mental health practitioners for contributing to this article: Thomas Tanue of Dedicated Care Health Services, Ifeoma C. Onyia of Miso Medical, Bode Akadri of Victory Community Outreach International and LaTisha Carter of My Covenant Place.

Team Credit: 

Article authored by Adedayo Fashanu, TANTV White House Correspondent

Researched and transcribed by Thelma Opurum, TANTV Producer.

Edited by AbolajI Omitogun.

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