During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of adults suffering from anxiety and depression quadrupled nationwide from 11 percent to 41 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The impact on communities of color has been deeper, with close to 50 percent of Black and Latino residents reporting mental health challenges.

In Massachusetts, low-income patients of color have found it increasingly difficult to access mental health services during this time. Language and cultural barriers, as well as long wait times for MassHealth patients, have contributed to these disparities.

With financial support from the 2019 MGH Community Health Impact funding, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) has launched a free training program for Community Health Workers (CHWs) and their supervisors to help clients connect with behavioral health and substance use disorder resources. The program also focuses on addressing systemic racism in behavioral healthcare.

“Behavioral health providers are often culturally and racially different from their patients,” says Jessica Aguilera-Steinert, MSW, LICSW, a public health social worker with 30 years of experience who is overseeing ABCD’s program. “Our trainings are addressing these gaps by helping diverse CHWs advocate effectively for patients around their behavioral health needs.”

ABCD’s Community Health Worker Behavioral Health Integration Project is training up to 140 community health workers and their supervisors from diverse communities across the Commonwealth. The trainings help them to build skills in patient advocacy, understand barriers to behavioral health care, and further develop their understanding of common mental health symptoms and disorders.

“A lot of CHWs who pursue this role come with their own personal knowledge of recovery or other lived experiences, and that’s why they’re so valuable,” said one CHW supervisor who completed the program.

“Sometimes patients feel more comfortable sharing sensitive information with a CHW versus a clinician,” added another training program participant. “They often speak their language and can see eye-to-eye with the patient.”

As the Commonwealth emerges from a global pandemic, communities are grappling with a mental health crisis, particularly communities of color. ABCD’s project is breaking down barriers to accessing behavioral health services with an innovative approach that builds the capacity and strengthens the skills of the much needed CHW workforce.