KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Why Interpreters Need More Mental Health Training

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: medical interpretation and mental health interpreting are not the same. Unfortunately, mental health interpretation is often lumped in with medical interpretation, and interpreters trained in medical interpretation are usually the ones who are dispatched to interpret for mental health encounters. While medical interpretation and mental health interpretation do share some similarities, they require not only a different set of skills, but the ability to decide when certain skillsets are more appropriate in any given situation.

Let’s face it: the interpreting landscape isn’t going to fundamentally change any time soon when it comes to mental health. Sure, we’ve seen a huge shift to remote interpretation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re likely not going to see a national or international certification in mental health interpretation, recognition of mental health interpretation as a specialty apart, or any other number of huge changes that would result in a huge push for mental health training for interpreters.

[Medical and mental health interpretation] require not only a different set of skills, but the ability to decide when certain skillsets are more appropriate in any given situation

Naturally, as a mental health advocate, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. That’s why I’ve paired up with Americans Against Language Barriers to produce a 10-part series on mental health interpretation. It’s free to watch, but there is a fee if you’d like to purchase CEU certificates (approved for NBCMI and CCHI CEUs). To my knowledge, this is the first series of its kind that is widely available to interpreters that is free to access.

Mental Health Interpreting Survey

As I was beginning to put together the first part of the series in October of 2020, I decided to conduct an informal survey of medical interpreters of spoken languages on their experiences with mental health interpretation. I’m excited to share the results of this survey here, but I have to emphasize that this is of course a very small sample size and may not be representative of the experiences of all medical interpreters.

For a detailed breakdown of the entirety of the survey results, click here, otherwise continue to read on about my important takeaways.

Training vs. Responsibilities

There were a few things that stood out in this survey, and the one takeaway that will stick with me the most is that while an overwhelming majority of interpreters surveyed have interpreted for mental health encounters, more than half of those same interpreters admitted to having zero mental health or mental health interpretation training.

54% of interpreters surveyed admitted to having zero training in mental health interpretation
92% of interpreters surveyed responded that they had interpreted for a mental health encounter

When respondents were given a chance to explain their mental health interpretation training experiences, many expressed that their training was minimal, only skimmed the surface, and in many cases limited to 1-hour CEU course offerings. One interpreter’s response in particular stood out to me: “I sincerely believe it’s not for everybody and a heads up on what to expect would make a huge difference.” This lack of training not only leaves interpreters feeling unprepared (a sentiment expressed by many) but also blindsided by a type of interpreting encounter they may not be well-suited for.

I sincerely believe it’s not for everybody and a heads up on what to expect would make a huge difference.

An interpreter surveyed commenting on their mental health interpreter training

All of this being said, the interpreters that did express they had training appeared to have a lot of it! Many of the methods I used to analyze the data averaged all responses, including interpreters who had zero training. When eliminating those with no training, a different picture began to emerge; that of (comparatively) highly-trained, experienced mental health interpreters, some of whom are mental health care providers themselves. So it appears we generally have two extremes when it comes to mental health interpretation: the untrained interpreter and the highly-trained interpreter. There don’t seem to be many interpreters who fall in the middle.

Safety in Mental Health Interpretation

Though patients in mental health settings are not inherently more dangerous or threatening than patients in other interpretation settings, it is apparent from the survey that many interpreters feel more unsafe in mental health settings.

Of the times that interpreters reported feeling in danger or at risk of being physically harmed, 63% of those instances occurred in mental health care settings
Of the time these interpreters dedicate to both mental health and medical interpretation, only 22% of those hours are typically mental health interpretation hours

So while mental health interpretation, on average, only comprised 22% of the average interpreter’s workload between medical and mental health interpretation hours, 63% of the instances in which interpreters felt in danger occurred in mental health care settings.

This is why part 2 of the mental health training series I am producing with Americans Against Language Barriers not only focuses on different mental health care settings and providers in the U.S., but also goes over interpreter safety in mental health care settings. I bring in a lot of data from peer-reviewed sources on safety in mental healthcare settings for patients and staff, as well as discuss how to anticipate sticky situations using an assessment tool recommended by the Joint Commission. By dispelling common myths with real data, encouraging interpreters to be aware of their own inputs into the mental health encounter, empowering interpreters to anticipate these situations, and discussing how to react in such situations, I hope to remedy some of these concerns!

Further Discussion

For now, I’m going to leave you all with these takeaways from the survey, as I am still in the process of producing the rest of the mental health interpretation training series that will touch on some of the other topics the survey tackled. I’d love to discuss these data in further detail once these trainings become available!

About the author

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

Kelly is a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. She work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical and mental health interpreter. Her passions include affirming interpretation for sexual and gender diverse populations, supporting interpreter mental health, and interpreting developmental-behavioral pediatrics.

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KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

I am a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. I work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical interpreter. Click here to read more about me.

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