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This article was originally published in the March/April issue of the Tarrant County Physician.

HISTORICALLY, STIGMA AGAINST MENTAL HEALTH, ACCESS to care, and discrimination contribute to worsened health outcomes. This is especially true for certain racial or ethnic groups such as those made up of Black and Hispanic individuals, as there are culturally negative views on mental health symptoms and/or treatment, a fear of mistrust of the medical community due to historical discrimination or mistreatments, or lack of access to mental health services.

To help address this, the Lay Mental Health Advocates (LMHA) program was created. This free, virtual training program is designed to teach laypersons the fundamentals needed to advocate for someone who is dealing with mental illness. LMHA focuses on teaching mental health advocacy by understanding how social determinants worse mental health and play key roles in overall health outcomes for marginalized communities. The social determinants of health are defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “the conditions in the environments where people are born, love, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”

LMHA began as a volunteer project during my time as a research trainee at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases before beginning medical school. In addition to conducting experiments in a traditional laboratory setting, I was a fellow of the National Institutes of Health Academy. This program allowed me to meet other trainee scientists equally as passionate about patient advocacy. Ultimately, the goal of this program was to implement a volunteer project that addresses health disparities in the local community.

We saw a need for interventional programs to fill the mental health gap that is particularly prevalent among marginalized communities. Our program consists of a weekly online workshop led by psychiatry residents or attendings from Duke University Hospital and local community leaders. they include interactive role-playing advocacy practice, case study reviews, and other informative components. Our eight-week-long program was modeled after the Johns Hopkins Medicine Lay Health Advocate Program and the Mental Health Allyship Program. Through LMHA, advocates can identify several different mental health conditions, gain a greater understanding of the factors that exacerbate health disparities, understand how to provide effective emotional support, and gain confidence in the role they can play in the lives of their community members by BEING mental health advocates.

The pilot program took place during Spring of 2021, and we had 100 participants whose ages ranged from 18-58. We are now on track to our third workshop series, with participants from across the county. In addition to that, we are currently expanding our team, working on our non-profit application, and establishing a volunteer program to work with the Duke Behavioral Health Inpatient Unit.

Watching this program grow beyond anything my team had imagined has been very rewarding. I wanted to share this journey with those of you reading to encourage you to continue advocating for yourself, your patients, and your community. If you ever see a problem that needs to be addressed or a gap that needs to be filled, just go for it- you never know what may come of it.


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