Published on July 31, 2023 in Food and Health
When Jennifer Medrano Delacruz was a child considering her future career path, she bypassed the dreams that enamor most kids. Instead of planning to become a police officer, teacher, or movie star, Jennifer chose a path that was more firmly grounded in the reality of the moment.
“I’ve known since I was 11 that I wanted to work in the mental health field,” Jennifer said. “Coming from my own complex trauma, I knew more than anything that I wanted to help others dealing with trauma.”
Now, at age 23, Jennifer is getting that chance as a mental health clinical intern at Centro Multicultural La Familia in Pontiac.
Centro was one of 41 organizations to receive funding through the Oakland Together Mental Health and Wellbeing Nonprofit Grant Program, which was administered by United Way for Southeastern Michigan beginning in 2021.
The Oakland County Executive and Board of Commissioners allocated $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to establish the program aimed at meeting the growing demand for mental health support and services spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that 1,469,000 adults in Michigan have a mental health condition. The 39% of families in our state who live below the ALICE Threshold are among the most likely to report feeling anxious, depressed, down, or hopeless, according to the 2020 Household Pulse Survey.
Mental health should be treated like physical health, and no one should be embarrassed or ashamed to get the help they need.”
The Oakland Together grant program continues to serve as a bridge while mental health providers and hospitals craft a more permanent solution for people in mental health crises. The Phase 1 grant cohort served more than 76,000 individuals. A Phase 2 cohort was announced in 2022 – allowing ten of the highest-performing organizations to continue their work with additional funding through October 2023.
This grant is one of several collaborations between United Way and Oakland County in recent years.
“We’re really proud to work side-by-side with Oakland County on this and other grant opportunities aimed at improving the lives of residents,” said Emily Mueller, director, Basic Needs at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “It’s been a wonderful partnership. We collaborate, listen to hear the intent and what they’re looking to accomplish with these funds, and we build the grant opportunities around that.”
“With grants covering out-of-school time, early childhood and nonprofit support, we’ve stewarded millions of dollars into the community on behalf of the county,” said Emily.
When announcing the Oakland Together initiative, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said, “Mental health should be treated like physical health, and no one should be embarrassed or ashamed to get the help they need in these unprecedented times.”
Centro CEO Dr. Sonia Acosta shared her gratitude and optimism about what could be accomplished through the grant funding. Her organization is one of only two in the county that serve the Latinx population through linguistically and culturally competent services.
“We are very grateful to David Coulter and Oakland Together for recognizing the need for services for the Spanish speaking population.”
“It is very difficult for people to access services in a language that they can’t understand,” Sonia said. “This funding is lifesaving for many people that, without this, would not have a place to go to talk about what is bothering them. They suffer additional isolation from not knowing either the language or how the systems work – mental health systems, and other social services.”
Many people from racial and ethnic minority groups have difficulty getting mental health care. Prohibitive factors include cost, lack of adequate health insurance, difficulty finding providers within their racial or ethnic group, and stigma around seeking help.
Each July, organizations around the country observe National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and BIPOC Mental Health Month. The efforts are dedicated to bringing attention to racial and ethnic disparities in mental health care – something Centro is committed to combatting.
In the summer of 2020, plagued by highly-publicized racial injustices, Daniel H. Gillison Jr., CEO of NAMI, said: “The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored. The disparity in access to mental health care in communities of color cannot be ignored. The inequality and lack of cultural competency in mental health treatment cannot be ignored.”
Using evidence-based practices, Centro and other organizations are hoping to heal their community one person at a time.
For Jennifer, who is Latinx and was adopted by a family outside of her native culture, the path to healing started with sharing her story and reconnecting to her community in her native tongue.
“It’s been an extremely fulfilling experience,” Jennifer said. “I’ve regained confidence in my Spanish-speaking and I can really relate to the individuals I work with.”
“Being a clinician has also opened my eyes to all of the barriers that exist,” Jennifer said. “I’ve known about them, but I hear daily about how people are still being impacted.”
“Just the other day, I had an adolescent male client and a female client in her 30s. Both were explaining experiences of dealing with microaggressions and being treated unfairly and the impact those things can have on your self-esteem. I’m now part of the solution to reversing those negative impacts.”
Some Oakland Together grantees are providing more traditional care while others are leaning into specialized services like substance abuse or art therapy. Troy Nature Center, for example, built a mindfulness program called Mindfulness at Stage. The program encourages participants to focus on nature, connect with their senses, and practice self-care. The wide range of approaches is purpose-built to meet people where they are and make mental health care more accessible for all while centering cultural and personal preferences.
When the tragic shooting happened in Oxford, many organizations, including Centro, rallied to help those impacted by gun violence.
“The work that these partners are doing is incredible and kudos to the county for understanding the need to focus on mental health and investing $10 million to help,” said Emily.
On July 26, United Way for Southeastern Michigan hosted Healing & Prioritizing Self: A BIPOC Mental Health Month Panel Discussion. You can find a link to the discussion here.
If you or someone you know are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 9-8-8 for help.