In 2019 I attended a conference put on by a well-renowned and respected parenting author who caters to mostly white, non-Latinx well-to-do parents. My organization had been gifted ten tickets because I knew someone who knew someone, and the ten of us were some of the only brown faces in the 800-person audience. On the second day, I was eating my box lunch while scrolling through my feed on my phone when I froze, mid-chew. “a 10-year-old girl in Santa Ana commits suicide.” My stomach turned as my appetite vanished. I knew this child was Latina before I confirmed it. Santa Ana, my birthplace and home, is 78 percent Latinx, it felt like she was essentially my neighbor. I looked around at the other conference attendees who were eating and socializing, clueless about the pain me and my city were experiencing. At that moment, I did not want to be rubbing elbows with the clueless. I wanted to go home.
Fortunately, I had friends there to process with, and it wasn’t lost on me that I had learned of Allison Wendel’s death at a conference facilitated by a parenting guru, an alleged advocate for children, and her spiritually bypassing followers who were likely and likewise detached from the reality of Latinx children and youth entirely. “Well, maybe that was just her path”, someone flippantly responded to me when I shared it with them. I felt hot and angry.
Allison’s death impacted me deeply, yet it was a symptom of a much bigger problem. I thought of her unspoken pain, the walls she must have felt closing in on her. Though we may never know her exact reasons, we do know that Latinx mental health outcomes for children and youth are grim and not talked about enough. Though Allison was only ten, which is younger than an adolescent, and the age my daughter is now, the statistics seem to worsen as Latinx children become adolescents. A couple of years prior to Allison’s suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had released a youth risk behavior surveillance survey that determined that 10.5 percent of Latina adolescents had attempted suicide in the last year, though 22.2 percent had “seriously considered” it. For males, it was slightly lower (5.8 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively). The statistics for children and youth aren’t pretty, and for queer Latinx youth, it is worse. Depression and anxiety among Latinx youth run rampant and coupled with the pervasive stigma about seeking support that many of our families still grapple with, our youth are at risk for devastating outcomes like Allison’s.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic exacerbated the mental and emotional challenges that Latinx children and youth face. Some reports have been released with updates about the pandemic’s impact, and the revelations are staggering. For one, almost 50 percent of all Latinx families in the U.S. experienced the loss of employment and income, even as they may have been already strapped for resources pre-pandemic. These studies also speak on the impact on Latinx youth leading to increased child care responsibilities which superseded their education and created negative impacts on their mental health. Though studies continue to gather data about the long-term effects that this had, there are a few factors that contribute to the overall mental health decline. Our community may experience a lack of insurance coverage, fears because of documentation status, immigration stressors, discrimination in healthcare, and a lack of representation of culturally competent and sustaining clinicians in the mental health field.
Overall, historically the Latinx community has been under-served and under-prioritized, and COVID-19 only compounded that. All of this, coupled with the widespread internalized stigma of seeking support, needs to be paid attention to. It requires significant action which could and must save young Latinx lives.
In the early days of quarantine, I reflected on how school used to be my sanctuary. My relationship with my parents was fraught with disconnection, so school was where I could experience safety with my peers. My teachers, most of them, were kind adults who cared. Although I’d return to a home where my nervous system was in overdrive, I could look forward to the order and predictability of school. What would’ve happened if suddenly that sanctuary was closed? Or if I hadn’t had any respite from the verbal and emotional abuse at home? I asked these and others to myself, shuddering, and thinking about all the kids that were in that very position. The compassion I felt extended to the parents as well, whose own inner children were more frequently activated and feeling out of control. It brings grief to acknowledge that some of our youth didn’t make it, and some are still recovering and feeling the aftershocks.
By the year 2060, about a third of the population in the United States will identify as having Latinx lineage. And yet, we aren’t seeing a similar increase in the rate of accessibility to mental health services growing with the population. Even though we represent nearly a fifth of the population, only 7 percent of mental healthcare providers identify as Latinx and only 5 percent are able to provide services in Spanish. Clearly, we need to do better at every level, from the political to the personal. I could go on with the numbers; they are important and also tragic. Yet, I’m optimistic. Organizations like Latinx Therapy and my own, Latinx Parenting, along with others, are doing powerful work to address the disparities and make demands for change and increased representation in every field, especially mental health, parenting, and education.
Latinx children and youth are a force of nature when given a voice and when we attune to them, beginning in our homes. We, the adults, must center on meeting their needs for mental and emotional wellness. Allison’s path was to live and to thrive, not to suffer in silence. Our children and youth deserve the same.