Getting mental health services in St. Louis can be tough — especially if you don’t speak English | St. Louis Public Radio

Getting mental health services in St. Louis can be tough — especially if you don’t speak English

May 31, 2017

Insurance coverage, transportation, child care and work schedules can all stand in the way of a person’s access to mental health services.

For some St. Louis residents, language is the biggest obstacle, because only a handful of organizations in the region offer services in languages other than English — and demand is growing.

Alina Hille, a bilingual therapist at St. Francis Community Services in south St. Louis, said that’s in part because of the stress generated by the political climate of the last presidential election, especially for her predominately Latino clients.

“The large majority of my clients come from mixed-status families,” she said. “We have a lot of children reporting anxiety over whether their parents are going to be deported, if [federal agents] are going to come to their school. We’ve had a lot of people who have already been in services, we’ve had to put some treatment goals on hold to address this anxiety.”

Some clients face up to two years on the waitlist before they can access adult mental health services at St. Francis. Hille, who manages referrals and waiting lists, said, “we’ve had quite a bit more severe cases coming in and people more desperate to get services.”

A metaphorical suitcase with all the things one might need to move on, this drawing is one of the examples Judy McGrath uses in her art therapy sessions with clients at St. Francis Community Center.
Credit Jenny Simeone | St. Louis Public Radio

Carla, who was born Mexico and has lived in St. Louis for 17 years, was managing a lot of anxiety. She's raising three children in the divide between Mexican and American culture, dealing with the stress of being away from family and facing an uncertain future tied to her immigration status. St. Louis Public Radio has changed Carla’s name because she is an unauthorized immigrant.

A friend of hers at church recommended the low-cost counseling at St. Francis, where Carla’s been seeing a therapist for more than a year.

“You can get so focused on working and saving, and you don’t think so much about the language, you don’t realize how important it is until the time passes,” Carla said in Spanish, adding, “This is a beautiful country, but very hard to adapt to. Not speaking the language it can be very very lonely.”

Fewer than 4 percent of residents in St. Louis and St. Louis County are Latino. And even though the community is relatively small, Judy McGrath, an art therapist at St. Francis, says the people need more support.  

“I can’t emphasize enough how limited the resources are for mental health services for Spanish-speaking adults,” said McGrath. “I mean, my hand is a very small percentage of my body and that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care for it. I think any unmet needs in a community affect the whole community directly or indirectly.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn