After experiencing first-hand some of the inequities that exist within the psychiatric system, Ysabel Garcia founded Estoy Aquí LLC. Estoy Aquí addresses suicide and mental health by offering culturally responsive training to organizations serving Latino and Black communities.  

This fall, Estoy Aquí partnered with medical students on a responder program entitled, La Cultura Sana, or The Culture Cures, which focuses on suicide and mental health through a social justice lens. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Garcia and some students to learn more about the program. 

Read the full transcription:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: After experiencing firsthand some of the inequities that exist within the psychiatric system, Ysabel Garcia founded Estoy Aquí LLC, which addresses suicide and mental health by offering culturally responsive training to organizations serving Latino and Black communities.

And this fall, Estoy Aquí partnered with medical students for a responder program entitled La Cultura Sana or the Culture Cures. I spoke with Garcia and some students to learn more about the program.

Ysabel Garcia, Estoy Aquí: So basically, we know that health, as we know, physical, mental, spiritual health, is not only created or shaped by medical symptoms, there are things in our environment that shape our health as well.

And so, things like housing, things like income, things like…even the zip code where we live, the structure of the neighborhoods where we live, all of those things in a combination — a combination of those things affect our mental health. How we behave, the choices we make, our actions, etc.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, I know that Estoy Aquí has done a lot of work in Black and Latino/Latinx communities around mental health. And so, it was important for you to create this program to be very community-centric.

What are you seeing happening in these communities and why is a program like this necessary to be implemented in these communities around this area?

Ysabel Garcia: Estoy Aquí, first of all, which is a professional development training service. I do workshops, trainings, panels, webinars, seminars, all about connecting the dots between mental health, suicide, and social justice.

And so, part of Estoy Aquí is La Cultura Sana, which means the Culture Cures. And that is where I offer peer support training to what I call cultural responders. And cultural responders are service workers, like barbers, hairdressers, librarians, people that are in the community that are providing some form of mental health support but that are not traditionally seen that way because they are not social workers or psychologists or psychiatrists.

And so I thought, well, the very first question is, where are these cultural responders? And that is where Sarah and Michela, who are part of the perch track, that’s where they come in.

And so, they were able to answer that question by creating an entire directory based on Western Mass, but specifically also Springfield.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, part of the design of this program included having some pop ups at key locations. And I know Ysabel, you mentioned some of those cultural responders being at, you know, salons, laundromats, bodegas.

And so, I know that during the two weeks you all visited there, what was it like connecting with the community and being hands on? What was their response to the students and to you all?

Michela Oster, Student: I…it was an amazing experience. I have goosebumps.

And I remember a particular interaction was with a man who owns a small corner store in Springfield. And out of the blue we decided to go in, we saw a lot of people coming in and out, and we realized that not a lot of people were buying things. It was a place where people were talking in Spanish. It was really the essence of what La Cultura Sana means, really the essence of cultural responders.

So, we started talking to the store owner and he just said, “It’s part of my job, like, listening to people, hearing their stories even when they don’t buy things. It’s part of my job. And I think that if I wasn’t here, I don’t know who would do it.”

And yeah, it was it was a very emotional experience.

Sarah Lee, Student: Another really amazing opportunity that we got was to sit in on a training that Ysabel was having with the Springfield Public Library. And its first, like, it’s a place where everyone and anyone, no matter what, how much money you have, you can go there. That’s a free resource and such a powerful resource.

And I think Ysabel, you know, basically…that was such a awesome place to recognize as a culture responder, because people don’t often think of libraries as a place to get care, you know, to get mental health care. But actually, librarians do a lot of supporting with people and just, like, helping them along their way, whether it’s, like, helping them with job applications or giving them a space to sit or giving them these free computers that they can use to do whatever they need to do.

And so, it was really great meeting librarians and doing the tough work of like, okay, how do you balance, you know, the really busy work you have as a librarian, but also, you know, extending a hand and being that support you can be for people who may rely on the libraries?

And so, that was also a really amazing experience.

Zydalis Bauer: No, it’s also fascinating because these are people that we encounter every single day and you really kind of take for granted the impact that they have on individuals. So, it’s really, really cool to see this strategy of giving them that training to be a cultural responder for mental health in the community.

Ysabel, you found that as Estoy Aquí and I know that you are a survivor of the psychiatric health system, and that’s part of the reason why you founded this program. You’re also a first-generation Dominican immigrant. And so, you know the experience in these communities dealing with mental health.

When it comes to mental health, what would you like for others to know and understand, especially when we’re speaking about Black and brown communities?

Ysabel Garcia: Fourteen years ago, 14 years ago, I moved to Springfield. Springfield, directly to Springfield. Springfield is my second home, basically.

Two weeks or three weeks after moving to Springfield, Massachusetts, I actually run away to Mercy Hospital, and that’s when my hospitalization in the psychiatric system started. It became a cycle of hospitalizations.

And during those hospitalizations and during my interactions with social workers and therapists and psychiatrists, I received a lot of violent responses, such as solitary confinement, micro-aggressions, physical restraints, just because I said that I wanted to die.

However, one thing that I noticed throughout my time in the psychiatric system and the health system is that access is not enough. And when I say this, people are like, “What do you mean?” Because in public health, access is everything. They love to talk about, “We need more access to therapists, we need more access to hospitals.” But my thing is, what about looking beyond access.

And so, Estoy Aquí and La Cultura Sana is basically saying, instead of just focusing on access and also on what’s wrong with the community, the so-called gaps, let’s look at what is working, because we do have a lot of strengths. That is where the cultural responders come in. So, we are not filling in the gaps. We are increasing strengths.

Something that is also part of La Cultura Sana is not just the peer support training, the cultural responder training, but also tabling. Tabling or pop-ups are central, because that’s where we really meet the community with our app and we start to ask questions and be curious. “Hey, how do you feel about mental health care?” Right? Like what — what is that like? And we actually give out pamphlets that has information about how to talk about suicide, for instance.

And I will — I will love if Michela and Sarah talked a little bit about their tabling experience during the two weeks.

Sarah Lee: We tabled in front of a social justice organization, and that was actually one of our first experiences being out in the community. And it was an eye opening experience, something I learned a lot from.

And a theme that kept coming up when we talk to people, is that they don’t feel — a lot of people don’t feel safe talking about their mental health anywhere in Springfield. And that was really a big statement to say, like, you don’t feel safe anywhere in the city to talk about. And it really made us reflect about how important Ysabel’s mission is, to kind of enhance those community strengths so that people can feel comfortable talking about their mental health to, you know, someone, like if they’re getting a haircut, if they’re going to the library, if they’re going to the grocery store.

Anywhere they’re going, we should all feel really comfortable talking about our mental health and — and seeking support from each other.