Clinica Tepati takes on Good Mental Hygiene

"Mental health has never been a priority in our country. It's weird how from an early age, we've been taught how to wash our hands, clean a cut, and fight the flu, but no one ever teaches you what to do when you find your life falling a part due to depression, anxiety, or uncontrollable emotions," stated Pablo Badra, a Clinica Tepati undergraduate volunteer. "I believe mental health needs to take more of a center stage in all of our lives, and becoming co-head of Mental Health was the best way I could promote that idea."

Established in 1974, Clinica Tepati has never failed to exhibit and embrace its principle values of health care, education, and advocacy.  As a student-run clinic in Sacramento that is geared towards serving the underserved Latinx community that have been otherwise neglected from previous healthcare providers, Clinica Tepati is no stranger to bridging gaps in the medical world. Since it has already solidified its trusted presence in the lives of many uninsured and undocumented patients, the clinic is expanding its resources to provide its patients with the healthcare they deserve through various projects, one of which is the newly implemented Mental Health Coordinator (MHC) positions.

So what exactly is MHC? It is essentially a small group within-clinic that tracks patients' depression using standardized psychological questionnaires and offers free counseling services by mental health professionals to any interested individuals. Volunteers who work the MHC position also follow-up with patients from time to time with phone calls to see how they are doing and to provide them with a support system.

MHC was officially established as a position within clinic during fall 2016 after Katherine Domenici and Yessenia Gonzalez, two undergraduate volunteers at Clinica Tepati, were determined to continue fostering the growth of a project a former physician's assistant student had introduced. "The position was new and I saw many ways that we could expand [it], so when [Lexi] announced that she was graduating, I knew some of us would need to step up to expand on our mental health initiative," Domenici reflected. "Before this position, Tepati didn’t have a standardized mental healthcare system that tracked patients with histories of depression."

The theme of mental health being overlooked is quite widespread and recurring in healthcare to this day. Clinica Tepati's call to action by bringing more attention to it was yet another progressive movement by them that stands to hopefully influence other clinics to do the same. "You cannot be physically healthy while being mentally unhealthy," said Christine Hu, a Co-Head of MHC. "They are one and the same, they are intertwined and together make up the quality of life we live."

Yet even when attempting to defy the societally overlooked nature of mental health by bringing MHC into clinic, Domenici faced another challenge: the stigma. "Some patients felt strongly that if they were diagnosed with a mental illness, they'd be seen as 'crazy'… However, I think that by having counselors and physicians that are understanding and well-versed on mental health topics helps makes the patients feel comfortable," she said. 

An integral player in allowing MHC patients to feel comfortable is Tepati's wonderful marriage and family therapist Aury Gutierrez-Zavala. She treats the patient, not the condition. Hu said, "She gets to know them, she laughs with them, she cries with them." Aury has taught her patients that mental health doesn't always have to be the negative feelings that come with coping with a mental health condition, but rather how to take care of themselves and educate them on other preventative measures.

As stigma rises from the unknown, Badra discusses that one of his main objectives as a new co-head is to expand the role of their undergraduate volunteers by having them educate the patients on how to practice "good mental hygiene."  He hopes that through education, the stigma attached with mental health could be alleviated and alter patients' attitudes regarding it.

Recently, MHC has started to integrate anxiety screenings into their system due to its prevalence. They also plan on continuing the Alzheimer's class a fellow Tepatista, Liz Cruz, is leading after she graduates.

With determined and passionate co-heads leading the way, Hu and Badra don't plan on pressing the brakes anytime soon. "We want mental health to take a larger, holistic role in Clinica. We want to engage more patients in mental health by allowing them to feel confident in the services we provide. We want to increase the number of counselors and psychiatrists available for our patients, so that anyone who wants to be seen by a professional can do so promptly," said Badra. Hu added onto her co-head's comment by saying, "We hope to [create] a strong support system for our patients by our undergraduates checking in with [them] and seeing how they are doing and how life is […] I would want our phone calls to not be clinical but instead friendly and supportive with conversations consisting of how their week has been, how their family is, just so they know that every week at least one person is on their side, someone truly cares about them, on how they are doing and is rooting for them to succeed in all of their endeavors."

All photos are credited to Clinica Tepati.