Latinas/os face barriers to mental health treatment

By / Por Laura Gonzales


It started when I was twelve. I was in 6th grade and began having negative feelings about myself and others. I felt isolated, alone, and like I couldn’t fit in. These feelings—which some would have dismissed as merely pre-adolescent behavior—eventually built up and led me to an unhealthy habit of self-harm.

First it was just scratches. I would take some scissors and scratch my skin until it turned white. As I began junior high, the feelings worsened and I found my first razorblade and actually began making cuts. I had cuts all over my arms and legs that I covered up because I was ashamed and afraid of being made fun of. Classmates referred to kids with my same habit as attention seeking or “emo”. These terms devalued everything I was going through and made me feel more ashamed, so I never told anyone about what I was doing to myself. In 7th grade, I developed friendships that made me feel included, so I left that habit for good. I found people I really loved and still have fond memories of that time. I thought things would turn around for me until I realized, those doubts were still there. Even though I no longer harmed myself and had a great group of friends, I still felt inadequate, tired, angry, and helpless all of the time. I tried to reach out to my sister, letting her know about my insecurities and hinted at my depression, but she dismissed my concerns and we never talked about it again.

I was too afraid to tell my parents or another adult. The stigma attached to having mental illnesses or mood disorders stopped me. Furthermore, as a first generation Mexican American woman, I already felt vulnerable, and was unable to admit to any weaknesses—which made it hard for me to begin my path to recovery.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) identifies Latino/as as a high-risk group for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Less than 1 in 11 of Latinas/os will contact and utilize mental health services, and less than 1 in 10 will contact general health care providers. That leaves about 90% of people in my ethnic group in this country that are living with these types of illnesses and struggling in silence.

What keeps Latinas/os from getting the help they need? One obstacle for me was that I am a first generation Mexican-American. My parents weren’t and in some ways are still not familiar with the resources available. Assimilated and middle class parents would probably know of a mental health facility, have a trusted physician, and be familiar with counseling options. My parents—having emigrated from Mexico in the 1980’s—had no knowledge or access to this information until very recently. This might be a factor as to why, as NAMI states, 34 percent of Whites receive proper mental care compared to only 24 percent of Latinos.

University of Utah Social Work instructor Mona Lisa Chavez-Esqueda, discussed in her “Social Work as a Profession class” why different groups of people of color hesitate from getting help for mental health issues. Esqueda pointed to research that found a difference in diagnosis when a Spanish-speaking social worker spoke with a Latino client and when a Caucasian person interviewed that same client.

“Linguistically, the Spanish-speaking social worker would describe the symptoms differently to the Hispanic, so they could paint a bigger picture of what is going on,” Esqueda said “versus the Caucasian mental health provider” who offered a different diagnosis.

Because Spanish is the primary language in my household, I am aware that during my current therapy sessions, at times I can’t properly articulate my thoughts and feelings to my White therapist.

A 1993 study found this cultural disparity nationwide. One in four Latinos live in a “linguistically isolated” household and only about 1% of social workers identify as Latino, creating a disconnect between Latinas/os who need help and the amount of mental health workers equipped to help them. Moreover, even though undocumented Latinos are accounted for in these statistics, U.S.-born Latinos or those who have lived here for long periods of time and have assimilated to the American culture, are more likely to get depression than undocumented or newly immigrated Latinos.

“I think there is a stigma in ethnic families,” Esqueda explained, that is rooted in their efforts to assimilate. “They’re trying to understand what dominant culture is about so they want to make sure they’re okay, and that nothing is wrong with them in society’s eyes.” she stated.

These kinds of pressures really take a toll on someone trying to fit in. I felt some of these pressures when it came to

trying to fit in with my own Mexican culture. From what I’ve lived through, there’s this mentality that to be Mexican is to be strong (ser fuerte). Within my family, whenever I would feel too exhausted to get out of bed or I was irritated—both symptoms of depression—I was seen as just being a huevona and having an attitude. Being depressed can feel like a flaw and something that would make me weak and less Mexican. I felt shame when I considered bringing it up to my family because I didn’t want to be “that” girl in the family, the one with all of the issues.

This June, I talked to my mother about getting myself help. After five weeks with my therapist, I was diagnosed with Dysthymic Disorder, a long term chronic depression. Even though several barriers prevented my path to recovery, I am now on it.

If you can relate to the issues I shared, there are people who can help you get through whatever trials are standing in the way of a happy life. I won’t say that it’s been easy. There was a time when I felt trapped in a tunnel, doubtful that there would ever be a light at the end for me. I didn’t think I would make it to my 20th birthday, and now it’s coming up. I am glad that I’ve made it this far. I still haven’t seen the light at the end, but I know that it is there, waiting for me to arrive.