Celebrating 50 Years: Dedication to Mental Health

Dr. Valencia hasn’t forgotten his journey as a child, having newly arrived from Mexico, to now leading one of Santa Clara County’s largest mental health service programs. Miguel, or Dr. V as he is affectionately called by his staff, remembers what it is like to leave a familiar home behind and the fear and confusion of coming to a new life in a different country with a different language. Like many of Gardner’s clients and patients, he is a first generation immigrant. Orphaned at four, raised by his grandparents, at age thirteen Miguel left Mexico with his bracero uncle for Redwood City, CA. Thirteen years later he finished his Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at San Jose State University.
In the early 1970s, Miguel experienced a pivotal event in his life. An uncle, who just arrived from Mexico and worked as a landscaper, experienced a psychotic breakdown and attempted to attack a friend with a knife. Miguel and a friend subdued his uncle and took him to the hospital where he was placed on medication. His uncle was subsequently referred to a mental health program in the area. Here, Miguel met Dr. Carlos Martinez, the only Spanish-speaking psychiatrist in the Bay Area at that time. “Ever since then I had this idea that maybe that’s the direction I wanted to go because there really were no Spanish speaking mental health workers at the time, and so I wanted to be part of something new, something that could help the community. That’s how I ended up coming to mental health.”
As a young student intern in San Jose State University’s Psychology Department, a friend introduced Miguel to Gardner. In the 1970s, the County of Santa Clara had few bilingual and bicultural mental health workers and no organized mental health network to serve the rapidly growing Latino population in the area. He joined a small group of volunteer mental health professionals who met weekly to provide free mental healthcare that incorporated the cultural, social and language needs of the Latino, primarily immigrant community, in the Gardner neighborhood of San Jose. In 1976, just eight years after Gardner’s first medical clinic was founded, Miguel and that small group of volunteers started serving clients with mental health challenges. The group discovered that many of the individuals being referred were experiencing psychosomatic disorders, depression, anxiety and many other emotional health issues. Funding from the State of California was sought and three years after he first began volunteering, Miguel became one of four mental health clinicians employed at Gardner. The Gardner Mental Health Department, called the Centro de Bienestar (Centro), the center of well-being, was launched.
In the early days of Centro you may have heard Dr. Valencia’s voice on the local radio waves. To demystify mental health problems within the Latino community, Dr. Valencia and others from Centro would appear at a local radio station and talk about mental health issues that were prevalent in the Latino community. They would discuss depression, anxiety and the science and symptoms of these conditions. To help people understand that mental health problems were not to be feared and to reduce the stigma of seeking care, Miguel and his fellow volunteers explained that everyone experiences depression and anxiety to some extent throughout the course of their lives. “We used to educate folks in the community about mental health issues. Sentirte bien, fisicamente y mentalmente es muy importante, centro de bienestar is a center of well-being, feeling good about yourself is important,” he says.
Stigma was, and continues to be, a challenge for mental health professionals, especially in the Latino community. A nuanced, culturally competent and comprehensive approach is the key to bridging the divide over mental health which is one of Miguel’s core beliefs. Years ago, he conducted home visits with an elderly woman who had recently lost her husband. The woman had been referred to Centro because she had become increasingly isolated from her family and was not eating well. As Miguel continued his visits, he learned that the woman was mortified about dying without having confessed to her husband that she had not been a virgin when they were married. Dr. Valencia suggested that she confess to her priest, since she was very religious. She did indeed confess and afterward became much more alert, and in the subsequent years became increasingly active in her church community. “The belief systems that all individuals carry… It’s important to understand what their background is and use that as a way for them to liberate themselves,” he says of working with his patients.
Eight years after beginning as a volunteer and five years after beginning as a Gardner clinician, Miguel got his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, writing his doctorate dissertation on the culturally competent treatment and the mental health outcomes of the Centro.
In 1985, he became the Director of Gardner’s mental health department, still named the Centro de Bienestar. His goal, when he became Director, was to continue the growth of Centro so more could be served, providing a range of culturally competent mental health services for all ages. Centro has grown from volunteers serving 100 individuals each year in 1976 to more than 180 mental health professionals and staff providing mental health services to more than 4,800 clients of all ages last year. As new waves of immigrants arrived in Santa Clara County, many from Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, Centro expanded its model of providing effective and culturally competent mental healthcare to serve the diverse and vibrant Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Today, the Centro staff speaks 7 different languages and 78% are bilingual or bicultural. Centro’s focus continues to be of service to the diverse, low income communities of individuals and families of Santa Clara County who are newly arrived in California.

“I believe Gardner has an important mission, an important task to serve the community, to serve those that are not served in the mainstream institution. As long as there are inequities in our society, as long as there are economic inequities, educational inequities, healthcare inequities, justice system inequities, there will always be alternative institutions whose missions are to serve those individuals that are neglected, those individuals who are not served equitably across our society. And there will be individuals whose passions, whose mission in life is to close the gap on inequities and I see Gardner as one of the alternative institutions addressing that gap in our society.”

Miguel’s passion to help alleviate the pain of mental illness has been passed on to his son, Carlos, who is a social worker. Miguel is fortunate to have Carlos and his three young grand-daughters live close by here in San Jose. Regular visits with the family, almost daily swimming sessions, walks with his dog, and Latino jazz are a big part of what makes Miguel’s life fulfilling and joyful. Annual visits to Michoacán’s town of Patzcuaro rejuvenates and refreshes his bond with Mexico and its people. And, local festivals – he just enjoyed the San Jose Jazz Festival – and community life celebrates his ties to his adopted community.
Every week or so, he takes a walk from his office at Gardner Health Services to visit Sacred Heart church where it all started. The mile-long walk takes him through the heart of the Gardner neighborhood, where his career in the mental health field began. The walk is a ritual that Dr. Valencia has kept up over the years as a way to acknowledge and stay connected to the roots of the mental health program he now oversees, Gardner’s Centro de Bienestar.
Content curated by Antonio Nunez, Jr.