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Interview with Director of Training for Behavioral Health Dr. Yaira Oquendo-Figueroa

I had the honor to get a chance to sit down with Dr. Yaira Oquendo-Figueroa to start the talk about mental health. She is the Director of Training for Behavioral Health at Salud Family Health Centers ( https://www.saludclinic.org/behavioral-health ). She has a Masters and PhD in Clinical Psychology, a fellowship in Primary Care Psychology and helps to train both local and international students on screening for behavioral and mental health for all ages. It is important to have these screenings integrated into everyday health care so warning signs don’t go unnoticed and it helps break the stigma of mental health. Dr. Oquendo-Figueroa is also a part of Longmont Multicultural Action Committee (LMAC) ( https://www.longmontcolorado.gov/departments/departments-a-d/community-services-department/multicultural-plan ) where she helps to educate and relay to the city different cultural views in Longmont. She also is part of Supporting Actions for Mental Health ( https://www.longmontcolorado.gov/departments/departments-a-d/community-services-department/supporting-action-for-mental-health ) which helps to break down the stigma of mental health and offers Mental Health First Aid and Training Classes for Citizens in English and Spanish. ( https://www.longmontcolorado.gov/departments/departments-a-d/community-services-department/supporting-action-for-mental-health/mental-health-first-aid )

Q: Mental health covers a vast spectrum of topics. Most of these topics are still considered taboo in our society. How do we open those lines of communication with our children to let them know we value their feelings and emotions, that we want them to be able to express those things to us, as non judgemental parents/caregivers, and encourage them to check in with us about how they feel?
A: It is very important, although sometime very difficult, for parents to listen to their children talk about their feelings non judgmentally due to the natural tendency of protecting our kids. They should listen to understand not only what is going on but also why it is happening rather than reacting to the particular behavior. Parents need to know when to seek help and what resources are available. Lastly, they need to understand that acceptance of behavior does not mean agreement of it but it means more of an understanding of the behavior.

Q: What are “normal” or typical thoughts and emotions, as opposed to ideas and feelings that would be considered warning signs?
A: “Normal” emotions would be things like being mad, anxious, or feeling sad; for example. These are emotions all people feel and need to feel. However; the frequency, persistence, duration or range of those emotions could be a warning sign. It is common and normal for children to change what interests them all the time, but if your child loses interest in something and can not replace it with a new activity, that can be a warning sign as well. Other warning signs would include self harming behavior, constant talk of death and expressing negative statements about themselves as a “fact”; as opposed to just a statement.

Q: At what point should a parent/caregiver seek help or assistance for their child? What is the first step to getting help for them?
A: Early intervention is key! Parents shouldn’t wait for a problem to get help for their children. Instead; they should talk to their children regularly about their feelings and pay attention to small signs of trouble to help their children before it gets worse. They should contact their primary care provider with any concerns and talk to their primary care provider about their mental health at every visit. Receiving services in a place under an integrated model of care that also considers the emotional, psychological, and developmental aspects of the child has shown to reduce and prevent mental health problems for arising.

Q: What would a typical mental health care routine look like if my child is experiencing a crisis? For example: Who do I contact? What information do I need to give? Who would I get referred to? What happens for follow up?
A: Studies have shown that 90% of people who seek help and treatment for a mental health problem get better. Crises can vary vastly depending on what exactly the crisis is. Sometimes there is a need for a higher level of care. While other times; just some time and support are needed. If a person’s life is in danger call 911. If it is non-life threatening then you can call the Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK(8255) ( http://coloradocrisisservices.org/ ), you can also call your primary care provider and ask for the first available appointment. Be sure to write down questions you may have for your primary care provider; like, who to contact if a crisis occurs and what should be expected after the crisis. It is important to remember that a crisis is only temporary and there is help!

Q: I have had another parent tell me that they were told the only treatment options available to assist with ADHD, ODD, Depression, Anxiety and other mental health diagnoses is medication. However, they were also told that they shouldn’t medicate their child without looking into other options. This information seems to contradict each other. Are there other avenues, as a parent/caregiver, to consider first if you are hesitant to medicate your child?
A: Therapy with behavioral interventions is the first line of treatment; especially for ADHD, but therapy can also be a great first line of treatment for other diagnoses too. Talk to your primary care provider about possible benefits of a combination of medication and therapy which has shown greater benefits when symptoms persist. Parents should look into and make a list of the pros and cons of both.

Q: How do we counter the stigma against getting help for our children?

  1. Advocate for family members with mental health and help provide information to others about the situation to help destigmatize it.
  2. Have a support system and rely on that support system. Taking care of ourselves helps to be able to take care of others.
  3. Share resources and information you find helpful, and take the time to talk to others in the community openly and honestly.

Q: What is my role, as a parent/caregiver, when my child comes to me and says their friend is depressed, speaking of running away, suicidal, or making unsafe choices?
A: It is our responsibility, and a social responsibility, to step up and reach out for help. If you know, and have a good relationship with, the child’s parents then reach out to them. If you don’t feel comfortable with that; or are unsure how to reach them, then get other adults involved such as going to the school and asking them to help you. Call 911 if there is an imminent danger. The Crisis Line is always available as well and you can even text them to reach out ( https://www.crisistextline.org/ ) Text HOME to 741741 for free.

Q: What is one thing that you would like every parent/caregiver to know when it comes to breaking the stigma that comes with mental health?
A: There are programs in the community to reach out to and use. It IS possible to change the mentality around mental health. I would like for parents to start the conversations. If they need help on how to start the conversation ( https://letstalkco.org/ ) has some great resources to help. Being open and honest with your children will help break the stigmas as well. I also would suggest parents participate in the Mental Health First Aid Training offered in Longmont.
( https://www.longmontcolorado.gov/departments/departments-a-d/community-services-department/supporting-action-for-mental-health/mental-health-first-aid )

Interview with Director of Training for Behavioral Health Dr. Yaira Oquendo-Figueroa
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