Grantee Spotlight: Humanidad Therapy & Education

A Conversation with Juan Torres of Humanidad Therapy & Education

Humanidad Therapy & Education Services was founded in 2012 in Santa Rosa with the mission to grow the number of culturally proficient counselors and therapists working in Sonoma County. They also offer bilingual and culturally competent counseling to community members and address stigma around mental health in Latinx communities with a convivencia model of participatory conversations designed to “increase a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and quality of life.” 

This year, the Healthcare Foundation joined forces with Humanidad and other partners to explore the creation of a Bicultural Clinical Training Program that provides bilingual, bicultural education and training for third-year graduate students and associates as well as a live, online bicultural training program for established clinicians county-wide who serve the Latinx population. 

This innovative program will strengthen the Healthcare Foundation’s Mental Health Talent Pipeline, while offering mental health providers high-quality, culturally and linguistically specific training to support their Latinx clients. The new program is founded on the strong belief that to grow competitive and impactful traineeships in our region, we need traineeships that, on an ongoing basis, offer supervision and training materials in Spanish, along with a curriculum designed with local immigrant, Spanish-speaking and Indigenous populations in mind.

Juan Torres joined Humanidad as its executive director in August of this year. We spoke with Juan recently about the work he and the team at Humanidad are carrying forward as well as the important partnerships that help to make it possible.

What is the current landscape of opportunity and need in terms of access to bilingual and bicultural mental health services in northern Sonoma County? Has it changed since the onset of the pandemic?

In terms of the big picture, our Latinx community is the fastest growing segment of our population here in Sonoma County, and across the country actually. We’re a relatively younger population. Not a lot of services are directed towards us, in particular towards our immigrant community and the children of our immigrant community. The children of immigrants find themselves in a situation where they feel, “No somos de aquí ni de aya,” we’re not from here or from there. A lot of our work is focused on accepting who we are, embracing it, embracing our cultura. We’re from here and we’re from there. We’re able to transition between two different cultures, speak in two different languages. We want to embrace that at Humanidad, and build those relationships around our language, our cultura.

As for the need, the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis but, as many of our therapists have shared with me, this crisis was here already. We struggle with the waiting list—we actually had to close it because the number of referrals that come to us is far beyond our capacity. So we’re always looking at supporting our future leaders, our future therapists. The partnership with the Healthcare Foundation is a win-win relationship for us. Maria Hess, who started our agency, was a professor at Sonoma State and was dedicated to addressing this lack of cultural competency, and helping young professionals that didn’t have the mentorship they needed, particularly from those who understood Latinx culture. With this [bicultural clinical training] project with the Healthcare Foundation, we’re specifically targeting that, and continuing Maria Hess’s dream and that of all of us at Humanidad.

What are some of the main challenges to meeting the demand for services?

The number one challenge is language access. About 95% of the referrals we get are for Spanish-language services. There are other agencies that have bilingual individuals on their staff but they are extremely limited. I don’t think there is any other agency like Humanidad that focuses so heavily on bilingual, bicultural services. Most of our staff are immigrants themselves or first-generation children of immigrants, so they have that cultural competency. They can connect with the people that they’re serving. 

Is cultural competency especially important with respect to mental health services? 

Yes, partly because of the stigma around mental health. Stigma is one of the things that our education component is really focused on. In our Latinx community, our writing and our music speak a lot about el amor and passion, and sometimes about the sorrow when el amor is not mutual. So we feel comfortable about that. But when it comes to addressing a mental health challenge like anxiety or depression, particularly in the male culture, those are really hard to address. They’re often hidden away. 

The pandemic allowed individuals to be open about their anxiety, their depression, and other mental health challenges. It created an opportunity there, similar to other disparities in our Latinx community. We were the most impacted in terms of wage loss during the pandemic; we were the ones that were getting sick the most; we were the ones dying the most here in California along with our Native American brothers and sisters. So a lot of these things existed already. And yes, the pandemic put a spotlight on it. But these were not new challenges.

“Most of our staff are immigrants themselves or first-generation children of immigrants, so they have that cultural competency. They can connect with the people that they’re serving.”

Juan Torres, Executive Director, Humanidad Therapy & Education Services

Grants to nonprofits are often tied to specific programs or are restricted to very specific uses. From your perspective, what is the importance of unrestricted funding to a community-based organization like Humanidad?

As I shared earlier, a lot of our therapists are first-generation. They have been encouraged in their career paths by their families. Their parents say, “ve a la escuela,” go to school. But parents don’t usually understand all the challenges. You get your bachelor’s, you come back and you have the party, you celebrate, and you say, “Me gradué,” I graduated. Now I need to do my master’s! And then you have to pay even more money. You have to explain that to your parents. Then, when you’re almost done with your master’s program, you have to tell them, I have to go work for free or almost for free as a trainee [in order to eventually become licensed]. Which usually means giving up or reducing your hours at the job you had while you were going to school. For anyone to go through the whole process of getting their master’s and becoming a trainee, doing their hours, and only then, finally, being able to get a job where they can earn a decent wage—that’s a big lift for anyone. For an immigrant or the children of immigrants, that’s an even bigger lift. 

At Humanidad we embrace those challenges and try to support our therapists as much as possible. One of the things we’ve done is to make sure that our trainees working at least 20 hours per week have access to health insurance. And we’re trying to increase their wages. These are challenges that are kind of unique, and that funders might not always understand. Often there are a lot of little details that can become difficult to explain. So having some flexibility around the funding goes a long way to cover the true cost of delivering services, including covering those unexpected expenses. That helps a lot. Because ultimately every expense of the agency is going towards the mission and serving our community.

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