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Health Career Connection: Building the next generation of diverse mental health providers

Jesus Cubilla explored equity in mental health care at this internship program sponsored by BlueSky.

When UC Berkeley senior Jesus Cubilla was growing up in South Central Los Angeles, mental health wasn’t something that was prioritized. Like many people in communities of color, Cubilla felt there was a stigma surrounding any depression or anxiety he might experience. Luckily, he was able to tap into resources at college. Because of his own experiences and an innovative internship program supported by Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky, he is pursuing a career in mental health to help his community.   

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Jesus Cubilla, Health Career Connection intern

“My parents were a positive influence and always taught me to take care of myself,” said Cubilla. “But in so many immigrant families in underserved communities, mental health was not a topic that was discussed. I learned the hard way, and I was overwhelmed emotionally when I got to college. But I got help, and then I wanted to help others and got the mental health internship.”

Cubilla is one of 110 interns that Blue Shield of California has sponsored since 2021 through Health Career Connection (HCC). Founded in 1999, HCC is creating a pipeline of diverse healthcare professionals to increase access to diverse providers for diverse communities.

Though the population in California is majority people of color, healthcare providers — particularly in mental health — are disproportionately white. For instance, 39% of the California population is Latino, and yet only 7% of physicians share their background.

According to Jeff Oxendine, the founder and CEO of HCC, having culturally competent mental health care is more important than ever with socio-political events, the pandemic and the economy disproportionately impacting people of color. “You can’t use an X-ray to diagnose and treat people’s mental health conditions,” said Oxendine. “We need providers who can communicate and build trust with patients in their preferred languages and integrate cultural perspectives into care. This helps people cope and heal.”

Health Career Connection’s goals

HCC has three goals to advance equity in health care. The first is to increase the diversity of providers who have the cultural knowledge, language capabilities and lived experience to gain trust.

Second is to increase the diversity of healthcare leadership so that the people making decisions about how communities are served reflect those communities.

Third is to connect diverse talent to health organizations looking to strengthen their workforce. Many employers understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but might not have channels though which they can access such talent.

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Cubilla and mentor Daisy Cervantes-Hernandez

Shaping leaders through hands-on experience

Cubilla’s internship was at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, Calif., which primarily serves a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. He was mentored by Daisy Cervantes-Hernandez, who also connected to the Center through HCC many years ago, and whose sister and friends were also HCC interns.

Cubilla and another HCC intern interviewed more than 200 patients who received mental health services at the Center, collecting data about telehealth and whether technology created barriers to services. He also gathered input about how the Center could improve care.

According to Cervantes-Hernandez, it’s hard to find healthcare professionals who speak Spanish. She noted, “I take the lived experience of my family when I am considering the patients here. My parents are monolingual Spanish speakers, and most providers ignore them or don’t take them seriously. This makes it difficult to navigate the healthcare system.”

For Cubilla, working at the Center opened his eyes to not only the need for culturally competent providers, but also more researchers and public health experts. He also appreciated the robust networking opportunities HCC provides. The interns are part of regional cohorts that come together for workshops and can connect to HCC alumni who already work in health care.

Being an intern solidified Cubilla’s desire to go into the mental health care field and break some of the stigmas that exist. “The internship really helped me, and now I want to help my community. I want to be a part of creating change and spreading the word about mental health to underserved communities.”

Blue Shield of California is proud of all the HCC interns we have sponsored through our BlueSky youth mental health initiative. According to Antoinette Mayer, co-founder of BlueSky and vice president of Corporate Citizenship at Blue Shield of California, HCC is creating changemakers: “Each one of the interns has the potential to provide mental health care to hundreds of people, shape health care policy or be the next CEO of Blue Shield. Health Career Connections is creating a small ripple that can have enormous impacts in our quest to create an equitable healthcare industry so that all Californians have access to quality, culturally competent care.”

Click here to learn more about Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky youth mental health initiative.

Click here to learn more about Health Career Connection.