Creating a “Healing, Engaging Conversation”

Partnership Between UMD Researchers and Nonprofit Group Addresses Latino Community's Mental Health Needs
Illustration of people engaged in conversation

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Diego Uriburu watched helplessly as Latino families throughout Montgomery County lost jobs, homes and family members.

As the executive director of Identity, a Rockville, Md.-based nonprofit, Uriburu has worked for years to create opportunities for Latino and other historically underserved youth to thrive. But pandemic-related stress, combined with a shortage of bilingual therapists and decades of trauma related to discrimination and immigration, strained the community’s mental health like never before.

“‘What can we do?’” he asked clients and their relatives directly. “They reminded us that in their home countries, many individuals did not go to see a therapist. They met with grandmothers or someone else they seemed to trust and connected with these individuals for a healing, engaging conversation.”

The organization drew on this cultural tradition when creating Encuentros (“a coming together,”) an emotional support program that trains Latino community members as non-clinical mental health workers who provide knowledge, skills and a safe space for their neighbors in need.

On Thursday, Identity leaders, University of Maryland faculty and other Encuentros partners released preliminary findings of the program’s success during an event at the Montgomery County Executive Office Building.

In just two years, the program has served nearly 2,000 adults. Their anxiety symptoms significantly decreased, and they became better at managing their stress and sadness, helping friends and family manage stress and taking care of their own emotional well-being, said family science Associate Professor Amy Lewin, a clinical psychologist who leads evaluation of the program along with family science Professor Kevin Roy and education Assistant Professor Sophia Rodriguez. Attendance rates are also consistently high, averaging around 86%.

“The power of Encuentros comes from the community,” Lewin said.

Once a week for nine weeks, Latino mothers and fathers meet with community mental health workers in their respective groups to discuss issues like anxiety, trauma and grief and ways to cope. They also participate in a WhatsApp messaging group to keep the conversation going during non-session times. Identity staff members are available to handle any emergencies.

What was most surprising to Lewin is the magnitude of the change participants experienced during the program. She explained that even small changes can meaningfully improve people’s well-being, but when she saw a statistical comparison showing how much anxiety and stress decreased for participants, “I nearly fell off my chair.”

With funding from a University of Maryland Grand Challenges grant, the program recently expanded to encompass Latino youth as well as adults. In less than a year, the youth version has trained 18 youth peer leaders to co-lead sessions and served more than 450 students.

“We have a giant mental health crisis in this country,” Lewin said. “Hiring more therapists and training a larger workforce of mental health professionals is an important part of the response to that crisis, but it’s insufficient alone.”

Programs like Encuentros can help fill the gap and serve as a model for community-led mental health interventions nationwide, she said.

Ana Guerra agreed. The mother of three had struggled with depression after losing four relatives in the span of a decade, but said the program made such a difference in her life, she is now an Encuentros community mental health worker.

“I got enrichment and support through the sessions, and it motivated me to want to help more,” she said. “It was kind of like a spark of light that I wanted to share with other members of my community.”

Illustration by iStock

This story first appeared in Maryland Today.