As vaccination efforts continue in San Mateo County with a focus on equity, the health ambassadors offer a warm smile and support to those who are waiting their turn in line, and those who have just been vaccinated. The Health Ambassador Program (HAP) that is housed under the Office of Diversity and Equity has partnered with Health Policy and Planning (HPP) to bring health ambassadors to vaccination sites. The Health Ambassadors are highly skilled community members who complete at least 5 mental health courses including the Parent Project, Mental Health First Aid, Wellness Recovery Action Plan and many others. This program is part of the community empowerment branch of ODE, and they serve to increase community awareness of services available in San Mateo County and connect individuals with support, help reduce stigma around mental health and substance use, and improve the ability of community members to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges.
The Health Ambassadors are a vital resource, the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for many reasons and because of the grief, financial loss and isolation we have seen a rise in anxiety and/or depressive disorders. Last July, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use.  Additionally, young adults, people of color, and essential workers, reported disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and suicidal ideation. Access to resources is also an issue, communities of color have historically faced challenges accessing mental health resources. The Health Ambassadors are peers, and well-known members of their communities that know firsthand how essential it is to have access to mental health resources. Cyntia, who has helped with vaccination clinics in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven shares with us, “before the pandemic, people didn’t even want to accept materials that had mental health information on it. They would tell us ‘I don’t need that, I’m not crazy.’ But the pandemic has changed things, no one has turned away any of the materials we are giving out. I think people are realizing that we all need help sometimes, and that there is nothing to be embarrassed about.”
HAPs bring a wealth of knowledge to their work. Many of them are consumers of services or family members of someone that has experienced mental health or substance use challenges. Additionally, many of them are bilingual and enable us to increase our language capacity at the vaccination sites. They have also been able to hand out information about county wide resources for food insecurity, housing as well as financial resources. Amada, who has been a health ambassador for years stated that “even just asking people how they are doing makes all of the difference. There are some people that come to get a vaccine and are really scared of the symptoms they will experience. It helps to calm them when I can tell them about my own experience, and they can visually see that I am okay.” Also, “there has been so much sadness from unemployment, grief from losing loved ones as well as anxiety about getting sick in our community, but we are seeing hope at the end of all of this.”
Cyntia, Amada and Lourdes all became HAPs because their children were going through a difficult time and they needed more tools in order to be able to help them. “I am worried about the youth; I became a HAP to help my daughter when she suffered through mental health challenges and I fear that the youth are really suffering during this time.” Pediatric mental health related emergency department visits have increased for youth 5-11 and 12-17, 24% and 31% with youth of color and LGBTQ youth being at a heightened risk of suicidal ideation even before the pandemic. Community members that are well informed about mental health and help break down stigma, and support people in accessing services are vital especially during this time. If you are interested in becoming a Health Ambassador and supporting your community more information can be found here.
 Mental Health, Substance Use and Suicidal Ideation during the COVID-19 Pandemic ( https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm)
 The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/#:~:text=During%20the%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic,largely%20stable%20since%20spring%202020.