Dr. Manny Casas has been the only Latino on the county of Santa Barbara Mental Health Commission for the last 30 years, and he’s tired of what he calls a lack of effort from administrators and higher-ups to address ethnic and racial disparity within Behavioral Wellness. Casas recently resigned from two committees in charge of doling out recommendations to the department on how to deal with ethnic inequality. Now 75, Casas wants to put a spotlight on the county’s mental health department, and its lack of what he calls “cultural awareness.”
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1941, Casas immigrated to the U.S. when he was 3. He recalls spending one summer as a teenager working at a sugar refinery and brick-making factory. He soon decided he wanted an education. Casas attended Berkeley in 1959, riding a Greyhound bus for an hour to campus daily, and witnessed the racial disparity he’s trying now to erase. “In the four years I was [at Berkeley], I can actually say I never ever met another Mexican in that campus, and in those days we had 24,000 to 26,000 students,” Casas said.
In those days, tuition cost $98 per semester. Casas studied political science and wanted to go into the diplomatic service, but he soon found his lack of citizenship was an obstacle for the jobs he wanted. His plan B was a teaching credential, and after that he stumbled upon counseling, which he quickly fell in love with. Casas holds his PhD in counseling psychology from Stanford and has worked as a counselor at UCLA and as a professor at UCSB.
It’s hard to paint a clear picture of diversity at Behavioral Wellness. The department has no up-to-date statistics on the ethnicities of the department’s staff, according to Chief Quality Care and Strategy Officer Suzanne Grimmesey. Efforts are underway, however, to gather information on staff ethnicity data and bilingual proficiency, she said. Patient information, however, was more readily available. Throughout 2015 and the first half of 2016, the majority of departmental patients were Hispanic.
Given that proportion, a 2015 report that Casas shared with me demonstrated a stark disparity in treatment. White patients throughout the county consistently went through the department’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) — one of the most expensive treatment options available. Caucasians constituted over 66 percent of ACT patients, while Hispanics accounted for less than 20 percent throughout a 10-month period the report surveyed. The report, which was prepared by one of the committees Casas resigned from, showed a general trend of Hispanic underrepresentation in services and an over-representation in the juvenile system.
Casas recounted stories of clinical staff grabbing janitors to interpret conversations for them with a mental health patient.
“It has happened,” said the Ethnic Services Manager at Behavioral Wellness, Yaneris Muñiz, of Casas’s story. “I have seen it happen myself.” Muñiz said situations like these come about as an “act of desperation,” when interpreters are not readily available. She said that interpretation services are indeed something that the department struggles with, but that there is an ongoing effort to improve and renew availability.
While the department itself doesn’t hire interpreters, Muñiz said, bilingual and multicultural staff members can undergo training and become certified to interpret for the department. In addition, she said she plans on hiring more contractors for languages like Korean and Cantonese, which the department does not have instant access to.
Casas resigned as chair from the Cultural Competency and Diversity Action Team — a committee that Muñiz now chairs — after expressing his concern that the administration was not acknowledging his team’s recommendations. Muñiz, who’s been the Ethnic Services Manager for about a half a year, said that she currently thinks she has the backing and full support of administrators.
“We know that most people have biases,” Casas said. “And there’s all kinds of research now and interventions for dealing with what is called implicit biases. The big companies at Silicon Valley provide training for all their people in this area … we need the same kind of training at the mental health services, and it can be done.”
Casas pointed at the Santa Barbara Probation Department as an example of a system successfully exploring inequality in their department without fear of a conversation on their shortfalls. In 2015, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a San Francisco-based organization that works with jurisdictions to address area racial and ethnic disparities, released a report detailing the disparity of arrests based on ethnicity. With a $147,940 grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections, the institute and UC Santa Barbara worked with Probation to educate and train juvenile justice stakeholders in implicit bias.
Several county stakeholders, the report found, had a negative view of Latino culture. Given that, culturally based programs had a low priority since stakeholders thought the culture itself helped in the fostering of crime, the report stated. Statistics-wise, arrests and probation diversion was disproportionate as well. Black and Latino youths in the county were more likely to get arrested, less likely to get diverted probation, and more likely to end up in secure detention than white youths, the report said.
“I want to make sure that the diverse population, especially the Latino population in town get equitable service,” Casas said. “I want [Behavioral Wellness] to address that issue and make sure that what they’re doing is appropriate.”