The New York-based physician and Chairman of the Board for SOMOS Community Care talks about why proper health care takes cultural background into consideration.
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Very much like in Hollywood, feeling represented makes a big difference.

Whether you're at work or doing something as simple as looking for a health care provider, having someone that understands your cultural nuances is an experience that can be not only transformative but life-saving.

Dr. Ramón Tallaj, MD, a New York-based health care provider and the Chairman of the Board for SOMOS Community Care, was at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic when it first hit and acutely understands the need for Latinos to have someone in their corner who looks like them.

He tells People Chica, "Minorities are not just a color and a language, it goes beyond that—it is a culture and a way of life. Just because someone can speak a little Spanish doesn't mean that they understand the underlying culture and what drives health care within this community."

In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Dr. Tallaj details why providing mental health services to underserved communities is at an all-time high and explains why those services are so vital to Latinos.

Dr. Ramon Tallaj, SOMOS Community Care
Credit: SOMOS Community Care

Dr. Tallaj, you oversee the SOMOS Community Care network which has over 2,600 health care providers delivering culturally competent care to patients in some of New York City's most vulnerable populations. What is the one thing you are proudest of when it comes to the work that you do and the services you provide?

What I am most proud of is being able to provide quality care to my community, a community that traditionally has been underserved and mistreated. We have been able to provide care to them in their language where they understand exactly what their problems are and how to get better and stay well just like the people with maybe more means are able to.

We know them, understand them and can explain and care for them better, and we make them feel like they matter, and that they also deserve quality care.

The pandemic, along with the waves of economic unrest, has affected people everywhere. In your experience, how have minority communities been disproportionately affected?

I believe they have been totally disproportionately affected. Our people live in crowded, multigenerational homes where COVID was able to spread and infect the weakest of our family members while being unable to receive care because hospitals were overcrowded and our people were not welcome.

But even worse, when other people were able to leave the city to their summer homes in the suburbs to quarantine or were able to isolate from each other and not have to leave the house, it was my people who were the essential workers that had to continue to expose themselves in supermarkets and bodegas, cleaning houses and driving. Thousands of our people got sick [with] COVID and of related hunger [problems] when the main breadwinner got sick.

Why do you feel it is necessary for minority communities to have a health care provider that "looks like them?"

Minorities are not just a color and a language, it goes beyond that—it is a culture and a way of life. Just because someone can speak a little Spanish doesn't mean that they understand the underlying culture and what drives health care within this community.

In order to help them get better and live better, you must start by understanding them and where they come from. When healthcare providers do that, you can bring them to a place where they understand what you are explaining and are open to the changes that you need them to make. This is not something you learn in school or in a cultural sensitivity class.

Maintaining your mental health, while necessary, can be difficult. What are some tips you'd suggest to people who can't afford to seek out the proper services or go to a SOMOS Community Care provider?

Mental health is extremely important and it starts with being understood. We understand our people and can reach out and help them. As far as being able to afford care through SOMOS, EVERYBODY can afford care with a SOMOS provider, we provide care for all people and work with the poorest and most underserved. 

SOMOS offers anonymous PHQ-9 and GAD-7 depression and anxiety screenings at all 900 locations throughout New York City as [well as] mental health intervention for our patients. It helps our people understand their needs, [and] information about specialized care for families and for those responding to trauma and mental illnesses.

What are some positive changes you've seen in people who seek out mental health services?

The understanding that removes taboos and stigmas. Because of our makeup and our reaching out to them where they are and asking how they are, people are more willing to open up and follow through. This is the only way to bring about change.

What are some tactics folks can utilize when noticing that something is not right with their loved ones? What is the best way for them to help out?

People must be open to a discussion about what is happening around them. They must be aware of changes in [the] mood and personality of their loved ones and when they see them. They must approach with love and understanding, and walk with them every step of the way with no judgment or bias.

Looking for more information on SOMOS Community Care or their telehealth services, visit somoscommunitycare.org or call 833-SOMOS-NY.