By Wayne Jebian
With increasing attention in the Capitol being placed on mental health services, and agencies such as the Department of Children and Families pushing for cultural sensitivity among their workers, lawmakers agreed that understanding specific details of intercultural relations is becoming more important than ever.
“We want to make sure that folks don’t fall through the cracks, and we also want to make sure that folks are not misdiagnosed either,” Senator Andres Ayala (D-Bridgeport) said.
Ayala is the co-sponsor of a bill mandating courses in cultural competency for social workers, professional counselors, alcohol and drug counselors, as well as marital and family therapists. It passed unanimously in the state Senate and will soon appear in front of the Connecticut House of Representatives.
The bill requires requires mental health and social services professionals to complete an hour of training per year as continuing professional development. The ongoing training is meant to update their cultural competency skills and knowledge above and beyond what is required to obtain the degrees and licenses necessary to practice in their respective fields.
Senator Ayala credited Jose Ortiz, president and CEO of the Hispanic Health Council, with the creation of the new law. In recent years, Ortiz succeeded in persuading the General Assembly to require cultural competency training for medical doctors and psychiatrists.
Oriz posed the question, “Look, if the doc has to do it, what about social workers, what about professional counselors, what about marriage and family therapists? What about alcohol and drug counselors?”
“Cultural competence really transcends sensitivity,” said Ortiz, explaining that it was about specific knowledge and learning how to read certain signals. Both Ortiz and Ayala described issues of body language and eye contact as areas that could be misinterpreted by caregivers and social workers, leading to possible misunderstanding and misdiagnosis.
“If you have a client that is Latino, and that client does not necessarily give good eye contact, it doesn’t mean that person is trying to hide anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that person is trying to avoid anything in particular. In the Latino culture, it’s actually a sign of respect,” said Ayala.
Ortiz said he began cultural competency training programs in the late 90s, when he was Director of Multicultural Affairs for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DHMAS).
“Folks that focus on learning about cultural competence, I believe, will have better results in terms of serving the underserved population, namely, in this state, we’re talking about African Americans, Latinos, and to some extent, Asian American,” he said.
Senator Terry Gerrantana (D- New Britain), who introduced the bill, said that it is “vital” that caregivers are educated and aware of the cultural nuances necessary to competently interact with patients.