Monday, March 20, 2023     Volume: 24, Issue: 3

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 21st, 2022, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 23, Issue 17 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 23, Issue 17

As COVID-19 lingers, county officials work to provide adequate mental health services to support both English- and Spanish-speaking communities


Steve DeLira wasn’t expecting to have an aunt die of COVID-19, or any relative for that matter. 

His cousin held her mom in her arms as she passed away, he recalled, and one thing DeLira remembered worrying about was whether his cousin would catch COVID-19 too, he said. 

“How could I let my mother pass and not hold her?” DeLira’s cousin asked him. 

DeLira said his decisions started changing because of the virus and he became himself overwhelmed by grief, a heightened anxiety around the virus, and concern for his family members. 

“All of that impact is overwhelming, and at one point you go from ‘it’s overwhelming,’ to ‘it’s a mental health issue,’ [but] how do you identify that? How do you know this overwhelming sense has gone into a mental health issue?” DeLira asked. 

DeLira is the deputy chief executive officer for Family Service Agency—a nonprofit organization serving Santa Barbara County residents with food, shelter, case management, and mental health programs—and he said the organization has received an increased demand for mental health services during COVID-19.

“We are encouraging people to go down the path [of services] and continue that journey. I don’t think the mental health days are going away for a while. This really hit us hard. The last two years is a sad story, and we’re all living through it,” DeLira said. 

In order to bridge inequities between English- and Spanish-speaking residents, the county hosted informational events in Spanish to help community members receive resources, vaccinations, and boosters, as well as connect with several organizations for additional support.

There are still some question marks as to how the virus has impacted the community, specifically within the Spanish-speaking population. The Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness conducted a survey that found most Spanish speakers in the county reported no negative mental health impacts. 

Advocates and researchers found those responses alarming, and they believe the lack of reporting has to do with mental health stigmas within the community. 

Regardless, the county found that there was a dire need for mental health support, and the Department of Behavioral Wellness is expecting $900,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to set up new support systems by mid-July. 

About 5,000 people completed the survey—which was led by a community wellness team of more than 35 collaborating agencies and received $1.5 million in ARPA funds. Results showed that 65 percent of English speakers said their mental health was worse, whereas 67 percent of Spanish speakers said the pandemic had no impact on their mental health. 

The percentages alarmed the county Board of Supervisors when the results were presented during its March 1 meeting. 

“This is interesting since trends statewide show the disproportionate effect the pandemic’s had on Latinos in terms of outcomes and deaths. Life expectancy dropped two years,” 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said during the meeting. 

According to the Santa Barbara County COVID-19 Community Dashboard, the Hispanic and Latino population made up about 56 percent of the hospitalizations and 49 percent of the deaths in the county, whereas white people made up for 35 percent and 41 percent, respectively. 

Nationwide, Latinos are 1.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus, and 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their non-Hispanic, white counterparts, according to the Center for American Progress

Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso told the Sun that she and her team quickly identified this population as an “at-risk community” because a lot of Latino and Hispanic community members were in essential jobs, highly populated living situations, and work that exposed them to more infections. 

“It’s complicated. What we are seeing is actually a very visible demonstration of the health inequities, notably among our Hispanic, Latino, and indigenous communities,” Do-Reynoso explained. “They are overrepresented in cases and deaths because of where they work, live, recreate, and worship. These are factors that affect their risk, and this pandemic really highlighted the inequities that exist.” 

Although the Latino and Hispanic communities may have experienced a greater toll because of COVID-19—and many people expected that to be reflected in the county’s mental health survey—there are also many factors to consider for their responses regarding mental health needs, according to county Behavioral Wellness Chief of Strategy and Community Engagement Suzanne Grimmesey. 

She noted that there are natural cultural elements that create a certain level of insulation, like connectivity with family, and these deep connections are helpful in lessening the mental health impacts of COVID-19. 

“I can’t speak for certain, but we do know that in [Latino] cultures, there’s a built-in self-protective factor that can force connections among family members. When people have that built-in support, it leads to people [being] less likely to reach out to other supports,” Grimmesey added. 

Stigma about mental illness—not unique to the Latino and Hispanic communities—presents a continued challenge as well, she said. 

Natalia Jaramillo—a UCSB graduate and now a doctor at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital—conducted research on mental health disparities for Hispanic and Latino young adults (ages 18 to 29), and said her findings discussed how stigma could hold people back from voicing mental health needs. 

“There is a mental health stigma that exists in the Latinx community, especially in older people, but it was very significant in [my research group],” Jaramillo said. “They felt they couldn’t talk to their family or talk about accessing mental health services because they didn’t feel validated as a result of what they attributed to mental health stigma.” 

Another important factor to keep in mind when looking at mental health data and reporting is generational trauma, she continued. Many families had to endure immigrating to the United States, and constantly fear family separation. 

“For young people born in the U.S., they are feeling guilt for feeling the impact of the pandemic, and feeling the compounded stress from COVID,” Jaramillo said.

But she said there are small steps being taken toward ending the stigma. Many of Jaramillo’s research participants said they were just happy to be in a space where they could relate to one another and talk about mental health impacts and wanted to see more conversational opportunities. 

“They talked about informational sessions in the community. … They also wanted increased access to mental health services. There’s still a need in terms of accessing services. Young Latinos have more barriers to access services, and they are less likely to access them,” Jaramillo said. 

Grimmesey, from county Behavioral Wellness, said that the department’s striving to fill some of those needs countywide after processing the survey results. 

Although she couldn’t share any plans yet because nothing’s set in stone, Grimmesey did say that both English- and Spanish-speaking survey participants asked for more opportunities to connect with people who’ve been impacted in the same way—similar to Jaramillo’s study participants. 

“They asked for a group that would teach the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and a group that would teach people to help others easily navigate resources. They asked if there was a way that more people could be trained on knowing how to access resources, connect and talk to people who experienced [similar things],” she said. 

The more discussion that happens around mental health, the greater the chances are of ending stigma and giving help to those in need of services, Grimmesey said. But she fears what will happen as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lessen and the virus begins to move to the back of people’s minds. 

“While the pandemic was more pronounced, people’s mental health was impacted and they talked about it. I hope that will not go away, and people will keep talking about mental health, and we will never get complacent about that,” she said. “The more we talk, it helps.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at

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