By Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin

UNM's Department of Psychiatry Partners with SE-COMISCA to Extend Behavioral Health Care Services Across Latin America

In an unparalleled collaboration, the Department of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and SE-COMISCA (SICA) have joined forces to provide critical behavioral health care services and training to eight member countries in the Latin American region. The innovative program aims to bridge the gap in mental health services and knowledge-sharing, significantly improving individual lives and strengthening communities across Central America.

SE-COMISCA, an international organization dedicated to regional integration in Central America, has partnered with UNM to bolster the capacity of health care professionals, facilitate telehealth services, and ultimately enhance access to mental health care in the region.

Dr. Rene Santos, a key figure at SE-COMISCA, says “There are eight member countries that participate in SICA, and developing our mental health plans and programs is a big priority for all the member countries.”

This unique collaboration between UNM and SE-COMISCA contributes to destigmatizing mental health issues and bolstering access to care in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and more. 


There’s a lot of stigma around mental health issues in Latin America – PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation. Our goal is to help create awareness and get rid of the stigma, so providers know what to look for and patients are open to getting care.
Jose Canaca, MD UNM Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Dr. Jose Canaca, a leading expert from UNM's Department of Psychiatry, emphasizes the importance of this partnership, stating, “There’s a lot of stigma around mental health issues in Latin America – PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation… Our goal is to help create awareness and get rid of the stigma, so providers know what to look for and patients are open to getting care.”

Dr. Mauricio Tohen, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UNM, further elaborated on the program's significance. “New Mexico is such a rural state, and what we learn here about working with rural communities can easily be extrapolated to Latin America.”

The partnership exemplifies the universality of challenges in providing adequate services. By partnering with SE-COMISCA, UNM aims to establish a framework that bridges geographical boundaries and enables access to expertise and support that was previously limited.

"Mental health is a global concern,” says Dr. Canaca. “In developing countries, only 2% of health care budgets goes to mental health, and that’s only for inpatient treatment. There’s nothing outside of inpatient care – not outpatient or even prevention.”

One of the program's core features is the training of rural health care providers in basic mental health care skills. These health care professionals receive invaluable training and resources, enabling them to better identify, understand, and treat individuals experiencing mental health issues. Such training has far-reaching effects, as many of these regions do not have access to mental health care providers, and if any treatment or services are available, it’s solely through their primary care providers.

Furthermore, the collaboration includes providing telementory in partnership with UNM's Project Echo, a telementoring modeldesigned to enhance healthcare access in remote and underserved areas. Dr. Santos shares his thoughts on this component of the partnership: “We want to reach people in remote areas who otherwise don’t have access to mental health information and services. Telementory technology connects local doctors with specialists, regardless of their location, ensuring quality care for the patients." 

Dr. Tohen underlines the mutual benefits of this collaboration, stating, "Sharing knowledge and solutions can go both ways and improve all of our communities. The challenges and knowledge aren’t solely traveling North to South – the learning experiences gained from working with these countries will also contribute to the advancement of mental health care in New Mexico and the United States." 

The UNM-SICA partnership is set to be a beacon of hope for Central American countries, transforming the accessibility and quality of mental health care. This innovative collaboration underscores the importance of international cooperation in addressing global health challenges and reaffirms the idea that sharing knowledge and solutions can uplift communities on both sides of the partnership. 

As the program gains momentum, it promises to be a model for international collaboration in the field of mental health, offering hope to regions that have long struggled with insufficient mental health services.

“The level of satisfaction we’re seeing among patients and providers is really high,” says Dr. Santos. “We're moving in the right direction, and we need to continue. There’s a real need to help people in our communities – to improve the capacity of our providers to give the care that our people need.”

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