Published On: June 30, 2022

Health Equity Challenge awards $100,000 in funding to UCLA student projects

Winning projects provide mental health crises de-escalation and maternal mental health support 

Media Contact:
UCLA CHPR Communications Team

After 10 weeks of working with mentors and community partners to turn their health equity ideas into full project proposals, two UCLA students were named the winners of the Health Equity Challenge, a competition presented by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and The MolinaCares Accord.

Angelica Johnsen and Alma Lopez were selected as the grand prize winners of the inaugural challenge, and their community partners, the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and SHIELDS for Families, will receive $50,000 each to fund and implement their proposals, which both tackle critical mental health inequities.  

“Health equity should never be an afterthought. It is the bedrock of public health. It is both a core value and a responsibility. And it starts right here in local communities,” said Kathryn Kietzman, director of the Health Equity Program at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. 

Lopez’s proposal will fund a pilot for SHIELDS for Families to evaluate English and Spanish online peer support groups as an intervention for mothers of color with perinatal depression in South LA. 

Johnsen’s proposal will help Charles R. Drew University develop a mental health de-escalation toolkit for medical providers, including students at the university, so that the next generation of health professionals will have the training needed to stabilize patients experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Community safety is a topic rife with political dialogue, yet the question itself is simple: Can we say we love our patients if we are trained, simply, to invoke the threat of violence when they are in crisis? Our health care culture relies heavily on such security measures that have historically harmed patients, especially those in mental health crises,” Johnsen says. “However, I dream for better. I envision a future in which I can tell my patients that they will be safe in my care, knowing definitively that it will be true.”

Step Up, Stand Down: A Mental Health De-Escalation Toolkit for Medical Providers

Despite increasing awareness of mental illness more broadly, mental health crises continue to be stigmatized even in the clinic/hospital setting — occasionally with lethal consequences for patients. Training on crisis de-escalation in the clinic is not addressed throughout the entirety of medical training, leaving medical providers to learn techniques in an on-the-job manner, says Johnsen, a rising fourth-year medical student in the Charles R. Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program.

“There are no protocols about stabilizing patients in crisis in the clinic that refocus the opportunity towards health care workers, rather than security presence. Yet, health care professionals are in a unique position to use their therapeutic alliance to heal patients even in these high-acuity situations,” she says. “By implementing both in-person and online educational modules on medical provider de-escalation at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, I aim to educate future and current health professionals to de-escalate patients in crisis with empathy and dignity in mind to keep patients safe.”

The outcome of this project, Johnsen says, is that every student who graduates from the Charles R. Drew University School of Nursing, School of Pharmacy, School of Physician Associate Studies and School of Medicine will graduate with basic competency in medical provider de-escalation for patients experiencing mental health crises without resorting to correctional measures. These providers, many of whom go on to serve South Los Angeles, will be prepared to actively manage patients who are in a state of crisis while protecting patient dignity and the sanctity of the patient-provider relationship.

Implementing Peer Support Groups to Reduce Perinatal Depression Symptoms Among South Los Angeles Mothers of Color

Maternal mental health conditions, such as perinatal depression during or after pregnancy are common, with up to 1 in 5 mothers being impacted. Among Black mothers, the rate of perinatal depression nearly doubles; and while perinatal depression is treatable, fewer than 15% of diagnosed mothers receive treatment, according to data from 2020 Mom, a national maternal mental health organization.

Lopez, a dual degree Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Policy student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and an aspiring OBGYNis committed to addressing disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality, including maternal mental health conditions which disproportionately affect systemically marginalized groups. 

Her proposal will bring mothers of color with perinatal depression together for online peer support, which her community partner, SHIELDS for Families, says is a need, given long waitlists for maternal mental health care referrals, especially for Spanish-speaking mothers. 

The pilot, Lopez says, will “increase knowledge of maternal mental health conditions among mothers of color, decrease stigma around perinatal depression, reduce perinatal depression symptoms and improve mother-infant bonding among participating mothers and their infants. If successful, this could serve as a model for group interventions to address maternal mental health conditions in other urban communities of color.”

Lopez and Johnsen are two of ten finalists in the Health Equity Challenge, supported by The MolinaCares Accord, a Molina Healthcare initiative, which funds meaningful, measurable, innovative programs and solutions that improve health, life, and living where it matters most: in our local communities. 

“MolinaCares congratulates the winners and is thrilled to partner with UCLA in selecting this talented set of future health care leaders as they design innovations to reduce health disparities in communities throughout Los Angeles,” said Carolyn Ingram, executive director of The Molina Healthcare Charitable Foundation. 

The remaining eight finalists and their projects:

Sonya Brooks
“We Are Our Mother’s Gardens: The Impact of Agricultural Sciences on the Mental Health and Well-Being of Inner-City Black Girls” aims to create and curate avenues for access to healthy foods, provide spaces for apprentice-type agricultural practices that curb food insecurities and minimize health disparities, and increase Black girls’ knowledge of food, foodways and food preparation in their schools, homes, and communities.

Lei Chen
“The ‘Practice-Research Consensus’ Program to Improve Older Immigrants’ Access to Health and Social Services in the Greater Los Angeles Area” aims to increase the number of older immigrants using social benefits, improve their understanding of these benefit programs, educate Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF) staff and promotors about finding and applying research findings and data for their daily work, and improve the services the organization provides for older immigrants.

Annalea Forrest
An integrative health platform that aims to decrease health inequities and increase the accessibility, availability and affordability of psychotherapeutic services, trauma informed exercise and nutritional counseling in Los Angeles. The platform connects BIPOC and low-income community members to preventive and integrative care via telehealth, at-home services or on-site with community partners.

James Hunh

“Community Open Space: An Intergenerational LGBTQ+ Vietnamese American Community Building Project” is a program to support LGBTQ+ and Vietnamese immigrants and refugees and their loved ones in Orange County by improving their mental health and social well-being through a social support space that encourages communication among different generations to build advocacy, leadership and civic engagement skills.

Gwendolyn Lee
“The Whole-Person Obesity and Weight Management (WOW) Program: Nutritional Health and Security, Physical Activity, and Behavioral Health” will create a replicable, sustainable model for a culturally responsive, holistic obesity and weight management program for underserved populations who face significant psychosocial and institutional barriers to health care.

Michelle K. Nakphong

A community-level patient education approach to educate immigrant women about their rights to high-quality care and empower them in their own care, and a health care systems audit and feedback approach aimed at designing a quality improvement program within the health care system.

Bianca Salvetti
“MyTruMe: Gender Affirming Treatment Interactive Website” is an interactive, web-based decision aid on gender-affirming treatment, with balanced information on treatment benefits, risks, resources and potential long-term effects, to improve knowledge and decisional conflict among transgender and gender-diverse youth and their caregivers.

Skye Shodahl
“A culturally-centered prenatal breastfeeding toolkit developed by and for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the San Francisco Bay Area using the Ecological Validity Model” to advance breast/chestfeeding equity in Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) pregnant and lactating parents — an overlooked and understudied population.

For more information about all the Health Equity Challenge finalists, visit


About the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research

The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research (CHPR) is one of the nation’s leading health policy research centers and the premier source of health policy information for California. UCLA CHPR improves the public’s health through high quality, objective, and evidence-based research and data that informs effective policymaking. UCLA CHPR is the home of the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) and is part of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. For more information, visit

About The MolinaCares Accord

Established by Molina Healthcare, Inc., The MolinaCares Accord oversees a community investment platform created to improve the health and well-being of disadvantaged populations by funding meaningful, measurable, and innovative programs and solutions that improve health, life, and living in local communities.

About Molina Healthcare of California

Molina Healthcare of California has been providing government-funded care for over 40 years. The Company serves members through Medi-Cal, Medicare, Medicare-Medicaid (Duals) and Covered California (Marketplace). Molina’s service areas include Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Orange County, and Imperial counties. Through its locally operated health plans, Molina Healthcare, Inc., a FORTUNE 500 company, served approximately 4.8 million members as of September 30, 2021. For more information about Molina Healthcare of California, visit ​​