See more of the story

Yonis Gabow is helping fill a void he first noticed when he studied to be a therapist: few men and people of color working in Minnesota's mental health field.

Gabow, a first-generation American and one of the few Somali-speaking mental health professionals in the state, started offering culturally specific therapy this school year at a St. Paul charter school, where about 90% of students are of Somali descent.

"This is really exciting … they see someone who was from here and navigated the dual cultures," said Gabow, who works for the Wilder Foundation. "My community is severely underserved."

As Minnesota becomes increasingly diverse, nonprofits are expanding efforts to provide culturally specific mental health services and better diversify the workforce. About 80% of licensed marriage and family therapists are women and nearly 90% are white, according to new data that will be published this year by the state Department of Health. Less than 1% speak Somali.

"Without a doubt, we have a long ways to go," said Maisha Giles, the behavioral health division director at the state Department of Human Services, adding that the state also has an overall mental health workforce shortage.

While anyone can struggle with mental health issues, immigrants, refugees and first-generation Americans may face more trauma, stigma and barriers such as finding transportation or affording services, Gabow said, and it can help to speak to someone who can relate to their experience.

He's leading the Wilder Foundation's new partnership with the Minnesota Math and Science Academy. The nonprofit has 21 mental health therapists in St. Paul schools. Most are people of color — Latino, Hmong and African-American. Gabow is the first to focus on the Somali community. Wilder also launched a training institute more than a decade ago to increase the number of people of color in the field; more than 100 people have completed it.

In Minneapolis, two nonprofits, Avivo and the Family Partnership, have also started workforce development programs to diversify mental health staffing.

In St. Cloud, where a large number of East African refugees — mostly Somali — resettled, the Center for Victims of Torture started offering free psychotherapy last year. The St. Cloud office is the international nonprofit's first in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities.

About 75 people, mostly Somali mothers, have participated in the parenting classes each year, honing skills like how to set boundaries or discipline their children while also discussing how trauma they have experienced affects their parenting. Amal Hassan, a community educator and Somali-American, said the parenting classes are also a way to destigmatize mental health problems and teach deep-breathing techniques.

When people seek mental health services, the reaction is "either you don't have a strong faith or you're crazy," she said, adding that her bilingual skills and personal experiences can help make someone more comfortable to share. "We're asking someone to be vulnerable and relive their experience. Sometimes it's good to heal and grieve in your own language."

She and social worker Kathleen O'Donnell Burrows have provided therapy to about a dozen people so far, mostly women who have never gone to therapy before. One woman was so fearful about leaving her house, worried about her children's safety and glued to her phone for updates from family overseas, that it left her isolated and unable to sleep.

"We know there's a need in the community there," O'Donnell Burrows said. "People are in crisis."

Filling a missing link

Both Wilder and the Center for Victims of Torture received grants from the Department of Human Services — part of $2.7 million a year the department is doling out to boost mental health and substance abuse prevention services for underserved groups, from Native Americans to the LGBT community and rural regions. The department also started a pilot grant program this year to come up with new recommendations on addressing health disparities.

Gabow, who became interested in the medical field while serving in the Army, said more work is needed. As a Somali-American, he said he helps the mostly Somali student population at the Minnesota Math and Science Academy navigate racial trauma, PTSD, anxiety, grief and loss. When a student showed up to class tired, instead of dismissing it, Gabow found out the student was calling family members overseas late at night due to the time difference.

Once students get help, they get in fewer arguments, reduce mental health symptoms and help their parents seek mental health help, he said. He'll even shuttle families to psychiatric appointments.

At Wilder, which also has long-standing mental health programs for Southeast Asian adults, Pahoua Yang, the vice president of community mental health and wellness, said Gabow is providing a critical link to a community in need.

"We have a growing Somali community right in our backyard," she said. "We've known we've needed to support the Somali community in a new way."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141