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Webster University Awarded Federal Grant To Address Mental Health Needs

Susannah Lohr
St. Louis Public Radio
Webster University is partnering with the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and other community health organizations to address the mental health needs of immigrants and people in underserved communities.

Webster University is using a $1 million federal grant to identify and treat the mental health needs of immigrants and those in underserved communities.

The university will partner with the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and various community health organizations, including St. Patrick Center and Queen of Peace Center.

Dr. Muthoni Musangali, an associate professor in the counseling department at Webster University, will lead the project. She said mental health is still stigmatized, especially in communities of color where people are less likely to reach out for help.

“They struggle on their own without really trying to access services,” Musangali said. “So that’s one thing that we’re hoping to address with this grant by working within the community to make this something less stigmatizing and more ordinary.”

For many, transportation has also been a barrier to seeking help, said Musangali, because they have to make arrangements to leave home.

“Find somebody to watch your kids to go find a counselor, and then catch the bus, and maybe that’s a two-hour journey one way or the other,” she said, “and in the process you’re going to have to disclose to people what you’re doing. So that makes people not go.”

Musangali said telehealth services will eliminate that issue altogether.

Much like transportation, language can be a barrier to mental health resources. Diego Abente is the president and CEO of Casa de Salud, another organization partnering with the university. Abente said the organization’s own Mental Health Collaborative gives clients the opportunity to get services in their native language or through an interpreter.

“That’s important in our region, because we don’t yet have the language capacity to have enough behavioral health experts available for the demand that there is in the community to receive this type of support,” he said.

Throughout the years, Abente said he’s seen a demand for behavioral health support, which led to the creation of the organization’s collaborative in 2018. He said it's grown the number of clients and the number of sessions each client has with therapists.

“Not only are more people accessing mental health at the collaborative,” Abente said, “they’re staying engaged in their sessions for a longer period of time. And that correlates to better outcomes.”

Webster University student counselors will be trained and offered paid internships, in which they’ll perform psychological screenings on patients and assess next steps for their mental health needs. Musangali said that may encourage those students to work in low-income, high-need areas in the region.

“Part of our goal with this grant is by placing interns in these places so that they will be better equipped,” she said, “they’ll be more competent by the time they graduate to continue to work with this population.”

And that, she said, may help address the shortage of mental health counselors.

The grant lasts four years.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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