Mental Health Partnerships offers training for bilingual peer specialists

Odalis Delgado said that for many immigrants like herself who speak Spanish and other languages, getting help with health care and other services can be difficult after moving to the United States.

Delgado said she had never heard of a potential resource: certified peer specialists who work in the behavioral health field and use their experiences to help others get these services and guidance.

Then, Mental Health Partnerships in Philadelphia began offering peer specialist certification courses entirely in Spanish this spring, and it caught Delgado’s attention. She enrolled to become trained and certified.

“When I saw it was in Spanish, I said, OK, I can do it,” she said.

Pennsylvania behavioral health organizations like Mental Health Partnerships are looking to train more Spanish and bilingual speakers to become peer-to-peer mental health professionals after the state loosened its certification requirements for these workers earlier this year.

People no longer need proof of a high school diploma to become a certified peer specialist, which experts say was a barrier for people who grew up and attended school in other countries.

At the same time, research shows that demand for mental and behavioral health services is at an all-time high while the field faces a provider shortage.

Reggie Connell, chief operating officer at Mental Health Partnerships, said he hopes the changes in state requirements and these new training opportunities will attract more peer specialists who can better reach underserved communities and non-English speakers.

“We want to hear the person’s real words, we want to understand their real story, hear their real narrative of how they’re feeling,” Connell said. “And then we want to serve them and make sure they’re sustaining their recovery.”

The Philadelphia nonprofit began offering certification training for Spanish speakers this spring in partnership with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. The two-week course is free.

Delgado, who worked as a business secretary when she lived in Venezuela, said she felt a lot more confident pursuing the training and certification because it was offered in Spanish, even though she can speak English.

“You can be more real, and you hear a lot of people talking in Spanish, so you feel comfortable,” she said. “I feel like my English is not 100 percent, so speaking Spanish, it’s better for me.”

Program trainers say that because people no longer have to track down hard-to-find diplomas or documents issued in other countries, they can complete the certification process much more quickly, leading to jobs and other benefits they previously may have struggled to get.

“Someone could have a degree from a university in a different country that is not recognized here,” said Hannah Spittle, bilingual learning and development specialist at Mental Health Partnerships. “That’s a barrier for people to obtain employment and to obtain health insurance.”

Delgado is already working part-time as a certified peer specialist in Kensington with the Color Me Back program at Mural Arts Philadelphia, where she helps Spanish speakers get connected to mental health care, trauma support and other social services.

“One girl, she tells me something that makes me feel like, wow,” Delgado said. “She says, ‘I always try explaining something, but my translator says something different, and I don’t say that. They don’t understand.’ And I say, yeah, but I’m here. I’m here, so I’ll help you out.”

Peer specialists often work in entry-level positions, but can get additional training and certifications to build out careers in this field of behavioral health.

Delgado said she hopes to focus her support and work on helping women and children.