Depression affects more Latinos than any other ethnicity according to data collected by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Unfortunately, many Latinos fail to seek professional help for various reasons but primarily because of the stigma attached to mental illness within the Latino community.That stigma leads to denial that there is a problem and keeps the individual trapped in a perpetual state of depression.
That’s how he/she is.
He/she is just tired.
He/she just needs to get over it.
No tiene nada.
Those are often phrases that are used in our culture as a means of dismissing behavior that is indicative of depression or mental health issues. There is a deeply rooted combination of socioeconomic and cultural elements that cause people to avoid or altogether avoid seeking help from mental health professionals.
Being Latino contributor, Dr. Isaura González, is a Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in New York providing psychological treatment, as well as coaching services. Dr. González’ coaching practice focuses on leadership development, personal growth, emotional wellness at work, anger management coaching, disruptive physicians, and disruptive work. She graciously provided some additional insight into the reasons why depression has become so prevalent in the Latino community.
Aside from the stigma attached to mental health issues that prevents some people from reaching out for help, there are other roadblocks to overcome, such as job constraints, language barriers, a lack of insurance, and inadequate mental health education. According to Dr. González, depression is not a solely biological illness for Latinos but it may be triggered from environmental or external factors and, more recently, has been the trend due to financial struggles which can be linked to their undocumented status.
It is challenging for many Latinos to find the time to seek proper health care due to job limitations. Many work service industry jobs, manual labor or have employment that has odd hours that prevent them from being able to schedule and keep appointments.
Latinos have the highest rate of uninsured people in the U.S. The lack of health insurance keeps some from finding a mental health professional that can assist them. Compound that with a lack of Spanish-speaking counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists and the problem becomes even more challenging.
Those who do seek care will typically go to a primary care physician and talk about the physiological symptoms they are feeling rather than discussing what they are feeling. They may mistake the physical ailments for tiredness rather than depression and hope that it will just go away.
Culturally, religion and family are of the utmost importance. Some people suffering from depression may turn to their church, extended family,and their community for guidance. This often results in undiagnosed mental issues and behavioral issues in adults and children.
Latinos value self-reliance and independence which discourages many from talking about their problems with others. They don’t want to be a burden to family and try to resolve matters themselves. Dr. Gonzalez expands on this further by saying “Latinos often are a very proud people and proud community. They often feel that they can handle their problems. And like the old adage: “La ropa sucia se lava en casa” Dirty clothes are washed at home. Many times, individuals do not want their dirty laundry being seen by others even if it is by a professional. There is a lot of shame and fear of being judged.”
There is a lack of mental health education across the country and even more so in the Latino community. Because of this, taking the first steps in seeking service is difficult and causes many to not pursue mental health assistance. Dr. González points out that accurate, adequate information is often missing or insufficient for educating those who most are in need of services. “Admitting depression or any other illness for that matter means that a person has to admit to a vulnerability. Vulnerabilities are never easy to admit. Families can be a great support for the individual suffering but can be a hindrance if they do not understand the illness or the process necessary for someone to begin healing. Finding assistance becomes important and knowing what a family can and cannot do is crucial.”
I asked Dr. González what she suggested we as a community can do to collectively break past the idea that it is bad or negative to ask for help. She said that she asks patients or potential patients if they would refuse crutches if they had a broken leg and, of course, they said no because they wouldn’t be able to function. “Sometimes helping individuals see that intervention isn’t about weakness or inferiority but rather doing what makes sense. When you help shift people’s way of viewing depression in those terms it helps them see that treatment is a tool or avenue to help them get better, it often helps ease the need to ask for help. I think finding a provider that you are comfortable with and who can afford you the level of ease and comfort helps with engaging in the process in general.”
Signs of depression include withdrawing from social events, change in appetite, change in sleeping patterns, loss of motivation and interest in favorite activities, and overwhelming feelings of sadness. Those suffering from depression sometimes lose jobs, relationships and familial connections and find their lives to be disrupted by one or more symptoms.
As a society, there is much to be learned regarding mental health and mental illness. The more open we are to educating our community, supporting those in need, and accepting the value of outside assistance, the more likely we are to eliminate the stigma attached to depression.