Volume XXI | Issue 2 | Fall 2021
Marcela Alcantar, founder of Ta Yeiyari, a community-based organization focused on indigenous health Photo: Christian Zavala

Breaking barriers to mental health access

Mental health resources and efforts for the Latinx community in rural Oregon

Unexpected and traumatic events such as the pandemic revealed the urgent need for culturally appropriate mental health services for Oregon’s Latinx and indigenous communities. These circumstances also brought their strength to the forefront. Community leaders quickly came together to fill day-to-day needs and gaps in mental health services in diverse ways, from Talking Circles to telehealth. Talking about mental health is a challenge in the Latinx community, and recent initiatives have opened the door to begin these conversations.

Some Latinx and indigenous Mesoamerican residents of Oregon are finding mental health support outside of the doctor’s office. “Talking Circle” workshops provide a safe and supportive environment to collectively share traumatic experiences while honoring cultural customs and personal needs.

The workshops are hosted by Ta Yeiyari (Huichol for "our customs and traditions,") a community-based organization focused on indigenous health. More than 170 residents, from Molalla to The Dalles, have participated in the workshops, which incorporate traditional meditations, art, culture and maternal languages. “It was amazing to see how receptive people were to talking about mental health, especially in indigenous communities where these conversations are harder to have," says Ta Yeiyari founder Marcela Alcantar, a Portland-based indigenous Mesoamerican leader.

Meeting the need

The Talking Circles workshops are just one way Latinx and indigenous Mesoamerican groups are addressing the urgent need for mental health services for their communities.

The disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Oregon’s Latinx residents are well documented – while just 13% of Oregon’s population, they have accounted for 40% of positive cases. That, along with devastating wildfires and job insecurity, has had a significant effect on mental health. The inequality is also reflected in mental health statistics, with a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding higher rates for substance use and suicidal thoughts among Hispanic/Latino-identifying people, and depression symptoms appearing 59% more frequently than in non-Hispanic white adults.

Employees in the Mid-Willamette Valley heard COVID-19 safety protocol and recommendations. PHOTO: Marcela Alcantar

Recognizing the need for mental health resources that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for Oregon's Latinx and indigenous Mesoamerican populations, community leaders have stepped up.

Groups such as Fortaleza, a statewide team of Latinx community leaders, have convened regularly to share inspiration, strategize and support one another. Fortaleza team members created a social media group to share real-time information from state and community-based agencies.

Community builders such as Ana Laura Piñeyro in Boardman are leading efforts to make public health information available in indigenous languages. Piñeyro helped create health information posters in Quiché for posting in communities with populations from Mayan areas of Guatemala.

Other efforts have helped establish COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites, distribute over one million masks to farmworkers in rural communities, and create Oregon’s first statewide multilingual communication campaign, which included Spanish and indigenous Mesoamerican languages.

A powerful leadership network

The dual impact of COVID-19 and wildfire trauma was the motivation behind the formation of the Oregon Latinx Leadership Network (OLLN) in March of 2020. Recognizing that the effects of these two events were more than physical, OLLN created a mental health team that travels to rural parts of Oregon where resources are scarce and Latinx agricultural workers are many.

Noemi Legaspi of Woodburn, an OLLN therapist. PHOTO: Raul Paque

Services have been provided to communities such as Talent, Phoenix, Independence, Woodburn and Redmond. So far, 2,780 Latinx community members in rural Oregon have been served by OLLN’s mental health team. The OLLN mental health team has provided more than 300 Chromebooks and hotspots to people without access to technology so licensed therapists can provide telehealth services to those needing trauma support.

“Our team has the compassion and ability to meet the Latinx community where they are at and break down the barriers that prevent them from accessing services,” says Melinda Avila, who oversees the OLLN mental health program.

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