October 09, 2015

By Katharine Campos

“Family comes first,” my mother always says. It constantly reminds me how important spending time with them is.

Growing up, I was always surrounded by an endless number of family members. My grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins-you name it-all gathered together to celebrate special occasions by eating delicious food and dancing the night away. Latino culture is typically very family-oriented, and in my experience, often extends beyond immediate family. Not only has my family been with me during times of celebration, they’ve been with me through challenging times as well.

The strong value Latinos place on family is often a source of comfort and empowerment. Research suggests that people who feel supported by their family may also have better mental health. Warm relationships in Latino families can help a family member with a mental health condition during recovery. In addition, people with strong emotional bonds to family members tend to have less symptoms of psychological distress.

Receiving that level of support can sometimes be challenging. A person with a mental health condition may isolate himself or herself, or their family might live far away. However, even in those cases, it is still possible to create a network of support by joining a mental health support group in your community for emotional support. Positive support networks give us strength during hard times.

Despite the importance Latino culture typically places on family relationships, mental health is still not openly discussed enough in our homes. There are a lot of misconceptions on mental health conditions that may also affect the decision for many members of the Latino community to seek treatment.

Before I began receiving treatment for depression and anxiety after my first year in college, my family did not speak much about mental health. It took me a long time to go to a mental health professional at my school because I kept thinking that I could get better on my own. Some of my family members also initially thought that I could “shake off” what I was going through, and that with faith, I could overcome it.

Ongoing conversations on mental health are now a regular thing in my family. I’m thankful for this because it has strengthened our ties to one another. Discussion is the key to understanding that mental health conditions are biological, not a form of weakness. We must encourage our family members and friends to seek out the help they need and support them during their recovery process.

Hispanic Heritage Month provides the opportunity to not only come together to celebrate our cultural pride, but also to shed light on some of the unique challenges that the Latino community faces when it comes to mental health. Latinos are a very diverse group with different experiences. However, many of us share the similar struggle of balancing our cultural heritage with the culture of the place we currently call home.

Here is what the data tells us about mental health in the Latino population:

  • While Latinos don’t have higher rates of mental health conditions than the general population, they are at greater risk for developing more chronic and persistent forms of depression, substance abuse and anxiety.
  • Studies suggest that American-born Latinos and those that have lived longer in the U.S. tend to show higher rates of mental health conditions than recent immigrants. This is called the immigrant paradox.
  • In 2011, suicide attempts for high school-aged Hispanic girls were 70% higher than white girls of the same age group.
  • According to a 2001 Surgeon General report, only 10% of Latinos with symptoms of a mental health condition contacted a mental health specialist.
  • The 2012 U.S. Census found that 29% of the Hispanic population was not covered by health insurance in comparison to 10.4% of the non-Hispanic white population, making Latinos the largest racial or ethnic group to lack health insurance.

Considering these issues, it’s important to remember both how Latinos have enriched American society and how Latinos can enrich their own lives both physically and emotionally.

Together, we can empower the members of our community and fight stigma.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s not only celebrate Latino culture, but advocate for mental health awareness. Here are some ways you (Latinos and non-Latinos) can take action:

  • Learn more about mental health in the Latino community.
  • Learn more about the health care options, including ones that the Affordable Care Act makes available. It’s now easier to get insured.
  • Find support for yourself or your loved ones by joining a NAMI support group or    educational program. Many are also available in Spanish.
  • If you know someone with a mental health condition, or even someone just going through tough times, offer to exercise or do a physical activity with them. (Salsa or Zumba classes, anyone?)
  • Cook a healthy, but tasty, Latin meal with friends/family.

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