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NSU Working with Partners to Address Mental Health Needs in Underserved Communities
- $300,000 Grant From Florida Blue Foundation To Allow Outreach In Culturally Diverse Populations
Published Tuesday, January 21, 2020


FORT LAUDERDALE/DAVIE, Fla. – For Nicole Cook, Ph.D., M.P.A., it’s personal.

“I’m a public health professional who has worked for 20 years to help improve access to care among vulnerable populations in South Florida,” said Cook, an associate professor in NSU’s Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Then the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting happened and rocked my world, both personally and professionally.”

Cook’s two daughters were MSD students and at the school during the incident. Both lost many dear friends and experienced first-hand trauma. Understandably, her family began to think about and access behavioral health services in a whole new way. Stigma, asking for, and receiving help, was clearly a challenge for Cook and many in her community. However, this challenge was even more pronounced for Cook’s friends who did not speak English as their first language.

“What I first noticed was that almost all the announcements and information about programs and services being provided after the MSD shooting were provided only in English,” Cook said. “Following the tragic suicides in our town at the one year anniversary, I worked with some of my NSU students and parents in the community to translate information on signs for suicide prevention and resiliency services into Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese and other languages to help those who may need it. Unfortunately, I found that these materials never made it into the hands of the agencies providing services or, more importantly, the people who needed them.”

From her years of experience designing and implementing programs for Florida’s most vulnerable populations, Cook understood that in some cultures, the issues of mental health and mental health awareness weren’t topics easily discussed. In fact, she knew that for people in some communities the stigma attached to someone in need of mental health assistance was so great, it stifled any chance of talking about it. From a first-hand perspective, it was difficult to see and hear children and parents suffering, but not accessing services that could possibly help.

As she sat at the planning table for resiliency services in the county, and later for suicide prevention, Cook recognized that our county didn’t seem to have the bandwidth to be able to fully focus on populations that may be left behind. And she wasn’t the only one with a desire and passion to address this gap.

So working with various organizations about this issue, including Broward County Public Schools, Children’s Services Council and Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, they agreed that something needed to be done to create a strategic, concerted way of reaching out to these families and beginning to close this informational gap. Cook wrote a grant to create such a program that would reach out to various segments of the community to start a dialogue about mental health in a way that would be welcomed. Her proposal was recently approved by the Florida Blue Foundation for nearly $300,000 for three years.

“What we need – what the community needs – is for us to go out into neighborhoods and listen to what people have to say about the issue of behavioral health, including what they are comfortable talking about and what they aren’t,” Cook said. “We want to start with a subtle conversation about overall wellness and how this ties into student achievement in school. That’s what this grant will allow, the creation of those efforts of getting out and talking with people and creating educational programs that are culturally acceptable and delivered in different languages, yet provide needed information on wellness, behavioral health and available services in our community.”

One resource Cook points to is the school district’s use of the ParentLink notification system to engage parents in the dialogue. This system has programmed in it the contact information – phone numbers and e-mails – of more than 20,000 English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) families whose children attend Broward’s public schools. Messaging can now be crafted specifically for the Haitian Creole and Hispanic communities – what Cook calls targeted outreach – that can help begin this needed dialogue.

“We are very fortunate to partner with Dr. Cook and NSU with the intent of meeting the needs of our multilingual families,” said Victoria B. Saldala, Director of Broward County Public Schools Bilingual/ESOL Department. “Mental health issues can be caused by various factors. Many of our families are impacted by the fear of deportation, separation of families, or the simple process of arriving to a new country with limited resources and no command of the English language. Being able to educate our families on mental health in their language and providing them with free resources available in our community will have a positive impact on their wellness as they acculturate to life in the United States.”

There is no denying that there are many places people can turn to if they need to address any mental health issues they or their loved ones may be experiencing. But it’s also true that for some communities and cultures, they approach mental health in different ways. It is vital that those in positions to provide help understand these differences and can navigate through them to ensure individuals who need help can get it.

“It truly is not a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to this issue,” Cook said. “Mental health is a public health issue, which includes everyone and, hopefully, thanks to the grant from the Florida Blue Foundation, we can begin laying the groundwork that can be built on the next three years and can make inroads into parts of our community that otherwise may have been overlooked.”


 About Nova Southeastern University (NSU): At NSU, students don’t just get an education, they get the competitive edge they need for real careers, real contributions and real life. A dynamic, private research university, NSU is providing high-quality educational and research programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree levels. Established in 1964, the university includes 16 colleges, the 215,000-square-foot Center for Collaborative Research, a private JK-12 grade school, the Mailman Segal Center (early childhood education) with specialists in Autism, the world-class NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, and the Alvin Sherman Library, Research and Information Technology Center, one of Florida’s largest public libraries. NSU students learn at our campuses in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Miami, Miramar, Orlando, Palm Beach, and Tampa, Florida, as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and online globally. Classified as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NSU is one of only 50 universities nationwide to also be awarded Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification, and is also the largest private institution in the United States that meets the U.S. Department of Education’s criteria as a Hispanic-serving Institution. Please visit www.nova.edu for more information.

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