For many Latinos, the thought of seeking help for depression or other mental health issues is often plagued by cultural stigma that can lead to more isolation.

One way of bridging that cultural gap may be found in the culture itself, according to a Sonoma State University professor spearheading a $1.18 million grant project aimed at identifying cultural practices that lead to improved mental and behavioral health.

These practices could include the traditional healing arts of curanderismo, Aztec dancing, mural painting and the tamaliza, the highly social and familial practice of making tamales, said SSU professor Francisco Vázquez, president of the board of directors of the nonprofit Latino Service Providers-Sonoma County.

Such traditions can have a healing effect on immigrant and minority communities often marginalized in the general population, Vázquez said.

“Knowing who you are and feeling good about who you are, that gives you an optimistic outlook on life,” said Vázquez, a professor of history of ideas and director of the Hutchins Institute for Public Policy Studies and Community Action.

According to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanics and African-Americans used mental health services at about half the rate of whites. A 2015 study of disparities in health services published by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 16.6 percent of white adults received services between 2008 and 2012, while only 7.3 percent of Hispanics received services.

The grant from the state Office of Health Equity California Reducing Disparities Project will fund a four-year initiative that will train 16 local high school students annually as mental health ambassadors, or promotores. The students will receive training at Santa Rosa Junior College as community health workers and work with mental health experts, as well as cultural and artistic leaders who can help them collect information about mental and behavioral health issues affecting the local Latino community.

“They need to know that what they’re doing is not just art but a form of mental health treatment,” Vázquez said.

Wanda Tapia, executive director of the Latino Service Providers, hopes the project will help identify “alternative methods to healing,” and that eventually these therapeutic practices can be funded through private or government insurance.

According to a white paper outlining the proposal, its main goals are reducing mental health stigma among local Latinos, and increasing knowledge of mental health symptoms and available resources, the number of Latinos who access mental health services, youth leadership and cultural pride.

Vázquez hopes the project will also encourage participating students to pursue careers in the mental health field.

“There’s a tremendous lack of bilingual bicultural mental health workers in Sonoma County,” Vázquez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.