If you’re poor, Latinx, and have mental health concerns, there’s a good chance you won’t receive the same quality treatment as your wealthier, non-minority counterparts in the US. Mariana Nicholls wants to change that.
A native of Colombia, Nicholls researches culturally competent therapeutic tools for assessment and intervention — in other words, how therapists can better understand minority patients’ mental health and addiction struggles and then treat them more effectively. Psychology researchers have traditionally tested their interventions mostly on relatively affluent, Caucasian subjects, Nicholls explains, which can make them less effective with other populations.
She became interested in mental health disparities while earning her master’s in mental health counseling and behavioral medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. She was involved with a study exploring a type of mental health intervention for people at high risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Although many participants’ first language was Spanish, there were no Spanish-speaking investigators. She had found her doctoral niche. “The Latinx population in the US is the fastest growing minority group,” says Nicholls, “and currently mental health providers are underprepared to meet the specific cultural and treatment needs of this population. My research is an effort to bridge the gap of treatment, by providing an example of how to intentionally incorporate cultural aspects into mental health and addictions treatments.”
Nicholls’ dissertation uses data from a National Institutes of Health-funded study conducted by her mentor, Department of Applied Psychology Assistant Professor Christina Lee, to examine whether clinicians’ Spanish-language fluency and therapeutic skillfulness influence the quality of mental health intervention delivered to heavy drinking Spanish-speaking clients.
Currently, Nicholls is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Psychology. “The thing I love most about psychology is its flexibility,” she says, “So I am hoping to continue providing clinical services for a variety of mental health concerns, while also engaging in practice-based research, and helping to train the next generation of psychologists on these topics.”