October 30, 2015

By Cinthya Luis

cinthya.jpgI was told recently that I have the power to save lives. I felt both humbled and excited by these words.

As the NAMI San Diego Peer Recovery Programs Coordinator, I meet, individuals, who, like me, live with mental health challenges.

Having a robust and positive mental health support system has helped me in so many ways. For example, getting the feeling of life instilled within me again. It has also inspired me to give back to a system that did so much for me when I was lost and confused. This is why I teach NAMI Peer-to-Peer and facilitate a  NAMI Connection support group in Spanish. These are just some of the beautiful things that can happen when recovery is filled with positive support.

Now, what happens when I speak to other Spanish speakers who are uneducated about the topic of mental health? Often, people simply walk away from me when I’m at a health event. I get the uncomfortable awkwardness that happens when people dodge solicitors. Or worse yet, I get conversations filled with the all too common stigma, discrimination and ignorance that has become mental illness’ uninvited permanent guest.

In the four and a half years since I’ve been with NAMI San Diego and have been doing work in the Spanish-speaking community, I have seen how these negative reactions have led to devastating consequences in my community. The repercussions of these attitudes are so dire that individuals are choosing to end their lives rather than reach out for help.

Symptoms of depression are quite frequently mistaken for laziness; anxiety is something you’ll grow out of; delusions and hallucinations happen because you are “loco” or need to be cured with religious prayer. Our current ideology doesn’t whole-heartedly understand nor accept the word “mental illness.” So many people still have not seen the “happy ending” that I have found in my recovery.

NAMI can build a bridge between ignorance and education. One way to do so is by offering Spanish trainings to have more individuals able to facilitate things like NAMI support groups. The more we can offer these invaluable resources, the faster the road to recovery will be reached. Additional resources are connecting and building strong networking systems with the faith community.

Often times, we go to our trusted priest or faith group leaders when we’re facing difficulties like mental health. Partnering with health agencies who have already gained the necessary trust of the community can be another great tool. If an agency is offering walking groups to Latino moms as a way for them to be healthier for example, we can work alongside the agency to say, offer a breathing exercise component to decrease anxiety, after the walks. Additionally, word choice is important. Words like “bienestar” (wellbeing) sound “gentler” and more inviting. We gravitate towards words that sound less stigmatizing.

I also encourage people to set up community mental health meetings. For a little over two years, NAMI San Diego has offered these meetings in Spanish. These meetings are what we call “Juntas Educativas de Salud Mental” (Education & Advocacy meetings). Meetings are an hour and a half, and are open to anyone who understands Spanish and wants to learn more about mental health. The first hour is devoted to what we call, “Preguntas al Profesional” (Ask the Doctor). We invite a professional (therapist or psychiatrist) to answer ANY questions about mental health that attendees have. The last thirty minutes, an outside organization is invited as a means to connect attendees with mental health agencies/info.

These meetings are great for a variety of reasons. It gives individuals who have a loved one living with a mental illness, an opportunity to ask questions to the professional about things like, medication, mediation side effects, etc. It gives these loved ones a place where they can go to find support from others with similar journeys. It can be a great way for individuals just wanting to learn more about mental health, to do so in a non-stigmatizing educational way. Never underestimate how much it can mean to someone who is struggling, to lend a compassionate ear or give a warm hug.

It lifts the ignorance blind off people, light bulbs go off, self-esteem improves, and attitudes begin to shift. As a result, more family conversations are had, more outreach to additional mental health is achieved, and a better quality of life is attained.

I believe in education and understanding. It helped me, and probably played a role in giving me the opportunity to be alive to write this piece today.

NAMI recently released its first Spanish-language training materials for NAMI Family Support Group and NAMI Connection programs. These materials will make it possible for NAMI Affiliates and State Organizations to support group trainings in Spanish and will lead to the expansion of these valuable programs in the Latino community. 

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