St. Elizabeths Hospital last week officially began the only federal hospital program to provide mental health services geared especially to Hispanic patients.

The program is intended to be a model for other mental health facilities on how to treat Hispanics, the fastest growing minority in the country, in a way that takes into consideration their cultural background, according to Ana Anders, the program's coordinator.

Anders, who is Cuban-born, said last week the program is in the developmental stages and will be fully implemented within a year. Currently, the program has no centralized offices and, except for Anders, no full-time staff.

Anders said hospital officials set up the program in "recognition of the special needs of Hispanic patients." In the past, she said, community leaders and relatives of the hospital's 45 Hispanic patients had expressed concern that Hispanics were having communication problems and not receiving the best care.

"Many of the patients are recent immigrants and speak little English, haven't adjusted to the food or to the difference in lifestyle," Anders said.

"Immigrants don't know how to ask questions, find out where to go, how to buy things. They have to learn from the beginning. What we will try to do is treat the mental illness and teach basic skills so that our patients can deal with stess outside in a more effective way and aren't pushed back here as soon as they are released," she explained.

The Hispanic patients are often "underserved," said Anders, because the language barrier keeps many of them from "taking advantage of many of the Hospital's grograms."

Dance therapy, psychodrama and art therapy, used for regular patients, will also be used in the special program, she said, but the progam will operate with bilingual staff and volunteers to make these programs more effective for the Spanish speaking population.

"It's important that we acknowledge what's in these people's culture-the songs, the different cultural situations, the music they react to," Anders said.

"We have to make the staff sensitive to these issues," Anders said, adding that with 4,200 empolyes at the hospital, doing that will take some time.

"For instance, we'd like to incorporate Hispanic food into the menu. Whenever I ask Hispanic patients how I can be of help, they always say, 'I don't like the food here. Can you get me white rice and black beans? Or some Cuban coffee?' "

The program has been in the works since 1976 when the hospital set up a three-per-son task force, of which Anders was a member, to make recommendations on how best to respond to the needs of Hispanic patients.

Last year, the hospital began designing the program through part of a $94,000 contract with the minority consulting firm of J.A. Reyes Associates, Inc., Anders said. The remainder of the grant will be usedto design a program for residents of the Virgin Islands, she added.