Study: Computerized System Breaks Down Language Barrier

Study: Computerized System Breaks Down Language Barrier
To Treat Depression In Spanish-Speaking Populations

By Molly Nance

Not everyone will admit to being depressed, and to make matters complicated, minority populations are less likely to seek mental health treatment. Furthermore, for the growing Latino population across the United States, there are limited resources for Spanish-speaking Latinos to obtain mental health treatment.

“It’s true. There is a stigma across different racial groups, and that’s still a challenge,” says Dr. Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of graduate studies and associate vice president for research at California State University, San Marcos.

That’s why Gonzalez has conducted studies to better enhance medical attention for the Latino population that is dealing with depression.

Gonzalez’s study that assessed depression within the Latino population was published in May in the Hispanic Journal of Behavior Sciences.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census report, Latinos constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population and are the largest and fastest-growing minority group. Forty percent of this group speaks Spanish or is limited in English proficiency.
“That is why we are so compelled to do this type of research,” Gonzalez says, explaining that there is a limited number of Spanish-speaking mental health professionals to serve these individuals. “What we are looking for are ways to be able to provide some level of service and assessment to people because, otherwise, they wouldn’t be asked in a language they understand.”

Gonzalez then explored the benefits of using a computer to detect depression among the participants.

“It is consistent in the studies that people responded equally well to the computerized version as they would face to face. They don’t see the computerized version to be cold or distant,” Gonzalez says. “I think in some way (the computer) helps get access for care, due to the stigma associated with seeing a psychiatrist.”

The computerized system is called the Voice-Interactive Depression Assessment System (VIDAS).

After asking a series of questions — similar to a depression symptom checklist — about appetite, energy level or difficulty sleeping, the VIDAS adds up the score, and Gonzalez makes the recommendation for the individual based on the score. This may then be further evaluated by a doctor and lead to medical treatment or psychotherapy.

Gonzalez explains that he conducted two studies using the VIDAS speech recognition application. The first one consisted of 50 English-speaking individuals and 47 Spanish-speaking individuals, and examined how comfortable the participants were with sharing their feelings with the computer.

The second study, with 108 English and 109 Spanish speakers, also concentrated on the participants’ comfort level but determined that the use of a woman’s voice was preferred.

“Generally, both sexes felt more comfortable with a female’s voice, because the stereotype is that they are more understanding and more sensitive,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez teamed up with Dr. John McQuaid, associate professor of
cognitive behavioral treatments of mental disorders at the University of California, San Diego, to conduct his research. McQuaid was in charge of recruiting the English-speaking participants from a San Diego-based depression clinic.

“The reason we had both English- and Spanish-speaking groups was to see whether or not the Spanish speakers were being served in a way that was equivalent or equally as good as the responses from the English-speaking folks,” he says. “In our study we discovered there weren’t any discrepancies.”

McQuaid and Gonzalez both agree that they were apprehensive that Latino immigrants, particularly from Mexico, and who have lower levels of education, would not respond well to the computerized assessment.
“That hasn’t been the case,” McQuaid says.

Forty-four percent of the Spanish-speaking participants reported no computer experience, and 78 percent had an annual income of less than $30,000.

Gonzalez is also the director of the National Latino Research Center at CSU, San Marcos. Although the current study focuses on the adult population, Gonzalez’s previous research includes drop-out prevention with Latino middle school children — many of whom are the children of Mexican immigrants — facing depression. He points out that even early intervention for at-risk children in this age group is too late.

“There are a lot of great things to do in science, but these are projects where there is immediate benefit to folks that are often not noticed,” he says.

“Becoming aware of people’s needs and being able to identify their needs for treatments is something very meaningful.”

By continuing the VIDAS study and highlighting the need for treating depression among Latinos, McQuaid and Gonzalez hope their findings will create a focus to develop resources, such as bilingual therapists throughout California, and to secure state funding.

“I definitely don’t propose that my research replace people; it’s designed to
provide a service where there are gaps,” says Gonzalez.



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