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UW program trains students, teens to provide mental health support for peers

A University of Washington program has students already providing support to those looking for mental health help. The program has been a resounding success so far.

SEATTLE — It's a problem impossible to ignore. Millions of people visit the emergency room every year with mental disorders as their primary diagnosis.  

A University of Washington program partnering with community health organizations is getting students and teens involved in providing support, to resounding success.

Twenty-year-old Bruno Flores is a University of Washington (UW) graduate, he majored in psychology. 

"I'm Hispanic, I was born in Mexico, came here when I was four years old," he said. 

For Flores, Washington is home. 

"This is my country, I grew up here," he said.

Flores said he and his siblings would bring up mental health to their parents, but they were often shut down. 

"For the male side of the culture, it's very macho. Be a man, don't cry," said Flores.

Now, Flores is trying to address mental health in minority teens through UW's Mental Health Matters program. 

"The primary goal is to reduce suicide and hospitalization rates within the county and the state of Washington," said University of Washington Bothell Professor Jody Early. She is the co-director of the community-based program in partnership with Verdant Health and North Sound Accountable Community of Health. 

"We understood that we couldn't wait for professionals to graduate and get licensed, we needed to do something now," said Sandra Huber who is the community engagement manager at Verdant Health Commission.

The program uses multiple strategies including culturally tailored mental health education, virtual roundtables, peer health navigation and community-driven events to promote mental health and lessen the stigma around reaching out for help.

"When we look at numbers from the CDC and other organizations, we see that just in the last five years, rates of suicide have quadrupled," said Early. 

Teens can also get involved in the program through peer navigator training.

"Not only provide basic fundamentals of what is mental health but talk about it through a cultural lens," said Early. 

Youth advisory groups are led by teens and students like Bruno. 

"I think once these resources are available, it will help people suffering from mental health issues," Bruno said.

The program started in south Snohomish County and has been so successful, that surrounding counties want to be included. The program has expanded to four other counties including King and Skagit counties. 

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