Rural advocates pinpoint holes in Kansas mental health, multilingual services

By: - August 31, 2021 11:30 am

Rural health and education advocates highlighted how access to mental health care and multilingual services can bridge racial inequalities present in Kansas. (Screen Capture of Governor Laura Kelly YouTube)

TOPEKA — Rural health and education advocates say increased access to mental health care and improved cultural or linguistic services would go a long way toward addressing disparities between communities of color and their white counterparts in rural Kansas.

Francisca Jimenez, a parenting coach and home visitor for Russell Child Development Center, said a lack of cultural competency training or limited language comprehension leaves some Latino families isolated from consistent health resources. Families she and fellow home visitors work with can be uneasy about saying what ails them, especially in a foreign language, she said.

In a previous role interpreting for Spanish-speaking patients, Jimenez saw the pitfalls of this language barrier firsthand.

“You could see sometimes how it does not go very well, and then how much (comprehension) you lose so much within that,” Jimenez said. “They aren’t able to have access to not just Spanish speakers, but to at least a minimum of 10 languages off the top of my head and as a result, we may not be able to help them with those services.”

Jimenez presented her work and recommendations for necessary policy shifts last week to the Governor’s Commission for Racial Equity and Justice. A representative of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence and Greenbush — otherwise known as the Southeast Kansas Educational Service Center — also provided recommendations.

Gov. Laura Kelly established the commission in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and growing demands for solutions to racial inequalities in Kansas. After submitting a report last year focusing on law enforcement and policing, the commission has shifted its focus to disparities in the social determinants of health — the environments and conditions in which people are born, live and learn, and which affect a wide range of life outcomes.

The commission will submit a final report to the Legislature and governor on work done this year and new recommendations in December.

Jimenez told members of the commission’s health care subcommittee that many families she works with in rural Kansas are often physically isolated due to lack of transportation. She said a byproduct of this physical and cultural isolation can often compound mental health or substance issues.

Monica Murnan, director of student support services for Greenbush and a former state representative, said for the two years she served on the city commission in Pittsburg, she would highlight police reports regarding mental health, substance abuse or children. By her estimation, nearly 90% of the calls they received were about these issues.

The approach taken in Pittsburg was to embed a social worker into the local police department as a resource. In the first three years there were about 290 visits, Murnan said.

“A lot of that visit took place on the porch or it took place leaning up against the car, but that concept of I’m coming to you and I’m open, that crosses all racial, socio-economic, and all of those different parts and pieces where we oftentimes lose equity,” she said. “Home visiting as a policy measure can look lots of different ways, but it is cheap, and it’s effective.”

Murnan said the program is funded through the Kansas Children’s Cabinet child abuse and neglect prevention funds and a local sales tax for safety.

Kathy Ray, director of the advocacy, education, and rural projects division for KCSDV, said collaborative efforts between community resources, such as a home visiting organization and an interpreter service, can go a long way in easing issues where state policy is lacking.

“I may not be the expert on how to interact with your child, but I’m going to reach out to the home visitor, or we’re going to let home visitors into our safe shelter to have these conversations,” Ray said. “I just think those kinds of things are unique opportunities to reach people and meet their needs in different ways.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.