Cultural Competency in Mental Health Care in Jerusalem – First Graduating Class of Interpreters

April 10, 2014

We’ve written here  and here about the importance of making mental health services – especially in Jerusalem – culturally competent, and the long road that lies ahead. On April 8 we made huge strides in the right direction, presenting graduates of the first class of medical interpreters at the Jerusalem Mental Health Center at Kfar Shaul with their completion certificates.

These 17 graduates – bilingual workers at the main public mental health facility in Kfar Shaul as well as at other facilities throughout the Jerusalem  area – represented the diversity of Jerusalem.  They came from a broad range of professions at the Center – from nurses to other treatment professionals, as well as a diversity of backgrounds, speaking Arabic, Russian and Amharic as mother tongues. “Cultural Competency is a must in every public health facility,” said Dr. Teitelbaum, Acting Director of the Jerusalem Mental Health Center, in his remarks. “Research shows that treatment is better when the facility is culturally competent. Our goal is that this new skill will improve our ability to treat the patients.”


Indeed, language-dependent care, such as therapeutic sessions or psychiatric assessment, can be unsuccessful if it is not held in the patient’s mother tongue. Research shows that it is easier to express your troubles in your native language and that psychiatric problems are more evident (and therefore treatable) when they are expressed in the patient’s native language. Thus, when caregivers are not available in the patient’s native tongue, a medical interpreter is a vital part of the treatment process. The mental health interpreter not only knows both languages fluently, he or she is also trained to translate the smallest nuances, even if at first they seem illogical or confused. It is this attention to the smallest details that enables the caregiver to more completely understand the patient’s condition.

Our Hanan Ohana, who directs the Cultural Competency Desk at the JICC, noted, “This graduation ceremony means more than 15 or so trained caregivers in the course. The Jerusalem Mental Health Center is a leader in mental health services in Israel. Their enthusiasm for the training will serve as an example for other mental health institutions in Israel, which we expect will follow suit. The support of the administration was very important in this process. Without it, implementation of the program and assimilation of cultural competency principles would be much more difficult.”


Over the course of two months the participants learned the concepts of cultural competency in general, as well as the basic guidelines of medical interpreting, especially in the context of mental health treatment. “This is the first time I’ve taught a course for mental health professionals in Jerusalem,” said Dr. Michal Schuster, Senior Consultant and Facilitator for Cultural Competency, and also a lecturer at Bar Ilan University. “I definitely learned much more than I taught.”


The participants also received specialized training in interpreting into their native languages. “I thought I knew the language I was translating from, and what I was translating into,” said Solomon, of Ethiopian origin. “But this course opened my eyes to a lot of subtleties I wasn’t aware of.” Lilian, a native Russian-speaker, echoed, “After the course, we feel much differently about the interpretation we do. The course gave us so much. It showed us how much more there is to learn.” Shoshi, also of Ethiopian origin, noted, “I never knew that there were so many different inferences, even in my mother tongue. Now I’m much more careful, even afraid [that I’ll interpret something incorrectly].”

During the course

During the course

Dr. Schuster emphasized that it is that awareness, of the gravity of the task of medical interpretation, “that is the key objective of the course. “

We would like to thank the Jerusalem Foundation and the Rayne Foundation, whose support made this course possible.

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