News Column

Words Fail Them

May 2005, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Joel Russell


Nicholas Torres has a problem most executives would love: Every time he advertises, the response is overwhelming. But until now his organization, Philadelphia-based Congreso de Latinos Unidos, hasn't figured out how to provide behavioral health services on the scale of current demand.

"We did a study two years ago about services for the Latino community, and it was very apparent that, when referring people, there weren't enough culturally competent and lingually capable individuals in the mental health professions," Mr. Torres says. "Finding qualified bilingual individuals is next to impossible. Basically, you're stealing [personnel] from someone else who is providing those services."

The lack of Hispanic mental health professionals spans the country. In their book Mexican Americans and Health: íSana! íSana!, scholars Adela de la Torre and Antonio Estrada relate the plight of a woman in Arizona who couldn't find a bilingual counselor for her elderly mother. Although the Department of Health & Human Services maintains the Hispanic Centers of Excellence program to recruit students into health careers, without aggressive efforts at all stages of the educational pipeline "the dearth of Hispanic health care professionals will continue into the mid-21st century," the book warns.

This disconnect in Hispanic behavioral health extends to finances, too. One municipality offered Congreso a $2 million grant, but Mr. Torres declined it because he didn't feel he could deliver high-quality services with the available labor pool. "The dollars will flow if an organization has the capacity and systems to manage them. Here in Philadelphia, there is a struggle to do that," he says.

In 2004, Congreso spent more than $3.7 million on behavioral counseling and $2.5 million on crisis intervention. Drug and alcohol counseling account for the largest share of the 21,000 people who received behavioral health assistance from Congreso last year. The organization ranks number 10 on the 2005 Hispanic Business Top 25 Nonprofits directory with total expenditures of $14.7 million.

At first glance, the behavioral health field offers plenty of competition: private counselors, psychologists, hospitals, clinics, and in the nonprofit sector, large multi-state organizations. But according to Mr. Torres, none of these providers have expertise with Hispanic culture or family dynamics.

Congreso has other projects that address the causes of behavioral problems. In parts of North Philadelphia, 55 percent of Hispanics lack a high school diploma and 50 percent are unemployed, according to Mr. Torres. "With those statistics, we will always have problems with drugs and alcohol," he says. In response, Congreso has grown its job development programs and has tentative plans for a charter school.
Mr. Torres believes the demand for Hispanic behavioral health services has barely entered its growth stage. Despite the organizational and staffing obstacles, "there is a large need for mental and behavioral health dollars to funnel into the Hispanic community," he says.


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