As Lorenzo continuously cries in his room, his right-hand wraps around his body and his left-hand covers up his mouth so his mom can’t hear him. Every time Lorenzo would cry, his father, Rogelio, would call him dramatic, but neither his mother nor his father knew that crying was one of the ways that Lorenzo dealt with his depression. Most Latinos have been raised to always be “fuerte” and to never show that they’re fragile. In fact, when depression or mental illness is brought up, Latinos tend to call these individuals loco(a), “lazy,” or dramatic.
Latinos not seeking help with mental health issues stem from various different factors such as economic barriers, language barriers, religion, and most importantly, the mental health stigma. The negative evaluation by Latinos of those with mental illnesses can be conceptualized in a variety of ways, but the two most pertinent are perceived stigma and personal or cultural stigma. Perceived stigma is when one believes that society as a whole view mental illnesses with a negative attitude, while personal stigma relates to an individual’s negative views of mental illness. According to a study of Latino communities by mental health.org, 9 out of 10 Latinos stated that they did not want to ask for help because of personal stigma.
The economic barrier in the Latino community is also very important to this issue. An average of 36% of working Latinos have health insurance and only 8.2% of those with insurance use anti-depressants versus 1.8% of those who were uninsured. Because of these stigmas, undiagnosed mental illness, especially depression, is widely entrenched in the Latino community. For example, suicide attempts for Hispanic girls from grades 9 to 12 were 50% higher than white girls in the same age group. Moreover, out of the one out of five Latinos suffering from depression, only 20% of those individuals seek help and less than 5% tell a relative. Latinos are taught to not believe in doctors because our abuela always know the right remedies to cure it all. Additionally, some Latinos believe that praying every day will stabilize their mental health, and therefore refuse or are reluctant to seek any medical treatment for their illness. Mental illness includes a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior, so no amount of tea or water under the bed is going to make this go away.
Many of these personal stigmas are also the results of the language barrier in the medical system. When a family member would try to go to the doctor, they would have mainly negative experiences because they couldn’t communicate with doctors. In the modern-day, this language barrier continues to persist. For example, bilingual patients are evaluated differently when evaluated in English versus Spanish, and because of this, Hispanics are more frequently undertreated than are whites. It is also commonplace for the language barrier to result in misdiagnosis. Latinos may describe the symptoms of depression as “nervios” (nervousness), but doctors are not aware of these cultural stigmas and mistranslations. This can create a negative cycle of misdiagnosis of mental illnesses, undertreatment, and reluctance to get medical aid.
With that being said, we are in 2019 and it is time to break the language barrier, fear, distrust of misdiagnosis, and personal stigma because this can save someone’s life. Be careful with the language you use when someone tells you they are suffering from mental illness. Start a conversation and raise awareness because you or a loved one could be going through this without even knowing! At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. “Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness and there should be no distinction” (Michelle Obama).
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only. It is not to be assumed that the opinions are those of GALEO or the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund. For the official position on any issue for GALEO, please contact Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of GALEO at firstname.lastname@example.org.