Dr. Adriana Torres-O'Connor: Never forgetting to help others
As the first Latina CEO of Mental Health Partnerships, Dr. Adriana Torres O'Connor hopes to use her platform to help the Latinx community get the most effective help towards their mental health and addiction concerns.
As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to an end, it's the perfect time to highlight one of the leaders of the charge towards transforming behavioral health services throughout the tri-state area.
Dr. Adriana Torres-O'Connor is the President & CEO of Mental Health Partnerships, a peer-driven non-profit organization that advocates for those facing mental health and addiction challenges. She officially took over the role in December 2018.
A licensed clinical psychologist with more than 20 years experience working in the community mental health field, Torres-O'Connor is the first Latina CEO since the organization was founded in 1951 - a distinction she has great pride in.
In addition to that pride, however, Torres-O'Connor says her role as CEO provides her with great responsibility towards not only the organization, but her community as well.
“I recognize that I have an obligation to honor, in terms of what my role is, and understanding that wherever I go, making sure that my heritage and the community that I come from is supported,” Torres-O’Connor said during an interview with AL DÍA.
A Colombian-American, Torres-O'Connor's father is from Cali, Colombia. He and his family moved to the United States in the 1950s, a time when there was a lot of political unrest and violence in the South American nation.
Despite not knowing the language, he worked hard as an insurance salesman and was able to create a new life for his family.
Knowing that family history, and understanding the fact that millions of other families have lived that same experience has guided Torres-O'Connor in her work at Mental Health Partnerships.
In April 2014, after launching a slew of online mental health screening tools on its website, Mental Health America analyzed a sample of 50,000 people who took those screenings. In that analysis, it was found that a large majority of the Latino respondents indicated that they would either monitor their own mental health or consult a peer rather than a mental health professional.
These statistics show a reality within the Latinx community as to how a large portion of that community addresses their mental health concerns.
Mental Health Partnerships plays a very important role in helping treat members of the Latinx community most impacted by mental health with their peer-support model. The staff at MHP are dedicated certified peer specialists trained to use their own lived experience in conjunction with therapeutic and wellness techniques to be able to provide support and interventions to those who are looking to recover from mental health and addiction issues. More than 60 percent of the staff are individuals with their own lived experiences.
“I have the ability now to provide the care that the Latinx community is likely more receptive to,” said Torres-O’Connor. "It is a very powerful service because it is somebody who has been down the journey of mental illness and/or addiction."
Since taking over as the CEO at MHP, Torres-O’Connor has worked diligently in making efforts to connect to the Latinx and provider communities, as well as inform other members of the organization about what the healthcare needs of the community are, and the best fit towards addressing those needs.
"They're comfortable talking about their own lived experience and working with the participants here... to help people continue the path of recovery, which is pretty amazing considering the stigma that is out there about mental health [and] addiction... Here it is something that we talk about, it is something that is part of our culture, it is something that we feel needs to be discussed, and it's something that is powerful," she added.
She can also recall the many times her father would say: "Make sure you're always helping people to better themselves," or "Make sure you're always helping people who need help... never forget to help people."
Those words always stuck with her. She followed through with those words and looked to do so in as many ways as possible.
“I grew up always wanting to help people,” said Torres-O’Connor. “So, when it came time to pick a career, it always seemed natural to pick something to help people.”
After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Rutgers University, Torres O'Connor went on to earn a master's of social work degree at New York University, before earning her doctorate in clinical psychology and MBA in health & medical services administration from Widener University.
“It ended up being a natural fit for me to not only be a psychologist, but to be a psychologist in community mental health, which is only where the most vulnerable populations are,” she added.
Through her work at MHP, Torres-O'Connor leads the charge in the efforts towards reducing the stigma that exists surrounding mental health and addiction - and that starts through educating.
“I would hope that increased education may be a role in terms of reducing stigma,” she said. “Also, I think increased exposure to role models in our society normalizing that having a mental health concern or mental health issue isn’t a negative.
"I think if we can work as a culture and a society to improve the picture, then we’d be in a better place.”