Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology Lorraine Benuto has received the University’s Inclusion, Equity and Diversity Leadership Award for her dedication to the diversification of the field of clinical psychology in Nevada and beyond. The award, established in 2017, recognizes the exceptional and exemplary work of an individual, outside primary, work-related responsibilities, in advancing the values of, inclusion, equity, and diversity across the University and among the greater and surrounding communities.
Benuto began her career at the University in 2009 as a postdoctoral fellow working for the Victims of Crime Treatment Center providing free evidence-based therapy in both English and Spanish to women and children who had experienced severe trauma and abuse. Soon after joining the Department of Psychology’s faculty in 2016, Benuto founded La Cliníca, a specialty clinic offering free mental health services to Latinas who have experienced domestic violence, assault, or sexual abuse. La Cliníca, funded via the state by federal pass through grants from the Violence Against Women Act and Victims of Crime and has helped to fill a void in Nevada by providing access to bilingual mental health services, economically accessible care, and by promoting mental health literacy within the Latinx community. Benuto has also used La Cliníca and her role at the University to recruit and train nearly two dozen graduate students, many of whom are Latinx, in culturally sensitive psychological services. More recently, Benuto developed and launched Psychology Research Opportunities for Underrepresented and Diverse students (PROUD), a program that provides professional development and research opportunities to help undergraduate students become competitive applicants for graduate school.
In addition to her outreach and service efforts at the University and in the local community, Benuto’s research on culturally tailored evidence based psychotherapies for Latinx individuals has become some of the most cited in the field. As part of her research efforts, Benuto and her research team developed a video to help reduce stigma toward behavioral healthcare in the Latinx community which has been widely disseminated.
Benuto’s advocacy for promoting health equity among underserved populations is ongoing. She recently received renewed funding for La Cliníca and continues to mentor graduate and postdoctoral students, one of whom, Jena Casas, was named the 2021 Sam Lieberman Regents' Award for Student Scholarship. Below, Benuto answers a few questions about La Cliníca, her mission as a professor, and more.
What does receiving the University’s Inclusion, Equity and Diversity Leadership Award mean to you?
I am incredibly humbled to be the recipient of the Regent’s Inclusion, Equity and Diversity Leadership Award. Receiving this award and seeing that the nomination was made by my mentor and my students, particularly the notation that I have brought collectivistic values to the department, was very touching.
You launched and direct La Cliníca Viva which offers free psychological services to Latinas who have experienced domestic violence, assault, or sexual abuse. What is La Cliníca origin story and why do you feel offering this free service is important?
In 2016 I was encouraged by the state to apply for a grant focused on violence against women. At that time, I was launching my program of research at UNR; prior to that I had been working as administrative faculty at the Victims of Crime Treatment Center and I was one of only a handful of providers who offered services in Spanish. I knew there was a huge need in Washoe County to provide high quality, culturally specific, mental health services and the grant was the perfect opportunity for me to bring much-needed services to the community while simultaneously generating training opportunities for students and creating a context to do clinical research. Because stigma can be an issue for Latinxs, I opted to give the clinic an ambiguous name—I did not want it to be immediately obvious that the clinic is a mental health clinic with the idea being that our clients could say they had an appointment with La Cliníca and it would not give it away that it was a mental health appointment. Free services are important as the population we work with has limited resources and tends to be un-insured or under-insured. The first grant I received provided seed money to get the clinic started and also created an opportunity for me to contribute to workforce development via the education of underrepresented students— over the last 5 years I have funded 19 graduate student and post-doc positions via La Cliníca. La Cliníca not only provides a needed service to the community, but it also acts as a training clinic. Because there is a significant treatment-provider gap—there are many more people with limited English language proficiency than there are Spanish-speaking therapists to provide services—training Spanish-speaking therapists is very important.
You recently received notice that the grant which funds La Cliníca has been renewed. What are your hopes for the future of the program?
There is a great need for Spanish language mental health services and there is room for us to grow and serve not only people who have been impacted by violence but other Latinxs who need services but who are unable to access them.
My hope for the future is to obtain a more stable funding source and to expand, including identifying space that will better suit our needs and size. With regard to the former, I have been fortunate enough to maintain continuous funding for the past five years but each year I have to reapply for funding and each year I worry about whether or not I will be able to continue running La Cliníca and more importantly what it means to the community if La Cliníca were to close; this year as an example I received less funding than last year which means I have to be creative with the funding to make sure we are able to help as many people as possible. With regard to the latter, I currently fund one full-time postdoc, and five part-time graduate student therapists. There is a great need for Spanish language mental health services and there is room for us to grow and serve not only people who have been impacted by violence but other Latinxs who need services but who are unable to access them. We’ve currently outgrown the space that we have allocated for this program and I hope to identify space that better suits the program’s needs.
You also run the DICE Center where you mentor graduate and undergraduate students in developing and disseminating culturally sensitive, evidence-based psychological services. What is your hope for the students you graduate as they enter the workforce?
Diversification of the field of clinical psychology is something I have been missioned around as a professor for the last five years and prior to that as a mentor to undergraduate students. One of my hopes is that my students will graduate and go on to mentor minority students and contribute to diversification of the field themselves by contributing to the pipeline of underrepresented students. My second hope is that my graduate students are well-prepared to work with the Latinx community either as clinicians or as researchers. I provide supervision in Spanish and I run a consultation group for bilingual providers in our community that my students participate in. These efforts are designed to prepare graduate students to function as culturally competent clinicians. I also run a very busy research lab and my hope for my graduate and undergraduate students is that they receive strong research training and become competitive to enter the academy as professors and graduate students respectively.
What impact do you hope to have at the University, our community and in the field of clinical psychology?
The stories students have shared with me illustrate how important it is to have a diverse faculty. As an example, I had a student share a story about how she had wanted to be a psychologist since she was a little girl but didn’t believe Latinas could become psychologists. She said that seeing me as a professor of clinical psychology gave her the motivation she needed to pursue it as a career.
At the University, I hope to have an impact on students. The stories students have shared with me illustrate how important it is to have a diverse faculty. As an example, I had a student share a story about how she had wanted to be a psychologist since she was a little girl but didn’t believe Latinas could become psychologists. She said that seeing me as a professor of clinical psychology gave her the motivation she needed to pursue it as a career. I had another student share how before my hire, she felt very alone as a minority and that having a Latina faculty member in the department provided her with the context to talk to about sensitive issues such as being part of a mixed immigration status family. Each of the students in my lab has a story that highlights the challenges that they experienced as minority students and each of them talks about being inspired by faculty and attributing their success to the support they received from faculty. As faculty, I believe it is my job to inspire, support, and train/prepare students for their next steps. I take my role as a mentor very seriously and it is the best part of my job. In the community, I hope to continue to contribute clinical services and hopefully expand mental health services to the broader Latinx population. At a field-level, I hope to reduce mental health disparities among minorities through research and also contribute to the dismantlement of systemic racism—which is linked to mental health disparities.
What’s next for you and the many initiatives and programs you lead?
I will continue to run La Cliníca, train graduate students to be culturally competent clinicians, and work with both graduate and undergraduate students via research and teaching. The majority of my work has focused on mental health disparities among ethnoracial minorities. One thing that I am hoping to focus on more in the next decade is the impact that systemic racism has on ethnoracial minorities; I would like to explore not only how clinical psychologists can address systemic racism at a societal level, but also how we can better serve the ethnoracial minority populations that we work with on an individual level.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I really believe that effective mentorship is key to success and I was fortunate enough to have two amazing mentors during my postdoc training who have continued to mentor me through the tenure and promotion process—I am eternally grateful to them and looking forward to paying it forward by continuing my mentorship students of postdocs.