How Not Talking About Mental Illness Is Hurting The Latinx Community


Seventeen-year-old Sarah Lisa Guerrero loved dancing folklorico and eating enchiladas with rice and Hershey’s chocolate kisses. She also battled with depression and according to her mom Martha Castanon, she rebelled by smoking and not submitting her schoolwork.

Guerrero began seeing a psychologist at Lakeland Mental Health Center in Moorhead, Minnesota in the spring of 2006  after a social worker told Castanon she showed signs of depression. She was diagnosed with mild depression and prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft and no one besides her mother and aunt knew of her visits to Lakeland. When Sarah was suspended for possession of a pocket knife and pipe, she was grounded.

I remember we talked about why I grounded her, the reasons why I wanted her to do better to graduate high school. I will never forget the tears in her eyes and she said ‘you never should have had me.’ I said, ‘Mija, I love you, how can you said that?’ And she went into her room.”

That was the night of November 15, 2006  and the next day, during a work trip to St. Paul, Martha received the call that Sarah had hanged herself in her bedroom. Latina teens currently have the highest rate of suicide attempts among all adolescent groups in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 youth high-risk behavior survey and 15 percent of Latina adolescents in the U.S. have attempted suicide. That’s in comparison to 9.8 percent for white female teens and 10.2 percent for black female teens. Nearly 26 percent of Latina teens considered suicide.

The difference between Sarah and others in the Latino community is that she received professional help. The American Psychiatric Association found in studies in 2014 that 36 percent of Hispanics with depression received care, versus 60 percent of whites. The stigma surrounding getting help for mental disorders is not unique to the Latinx community but its evident that addressing mental health is still a work in progress.

“After Sarah died, I learned how much of a stigma there is and the Latino community did not want to talk about mental health issues or to seek counseling. I tried starting a Spanish speaking support group for survivors of suicide because there were other Latino families in this area who had lost family members to suicide.  They would not come, it was hard for them to open up to a group of strangers,”Castanon said.

Erica Marie Roman, 32, grew up in Brooklyn in a Puerto Rican home witnessing her parent’s abusive relationship and, having no healthy outlet, began cutting at the age of ten. “Growing up, it was almost a stigma, to appear weak, to allow outsiders to know what was really going on, inside the home. Anytime I would try to talk to my mother, she always responded ’well mija, this is all your fathers fault.’ So I began to hate him,” she said.

In her teens she began to drink and smoke, taking after her mother, to “numb myself of physical and emotional pain.”

Both Roman and Guerrero experienced depression at a young age, though these are two different outcomes, the attitude of self-reliance is prevalent. Even more so than American culture as a whole, Latino culture values self-reliance, which can discourage people from talking about their problems, Jane Delgado, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health told Health.com.

“Stuffing our feelings and trauma only serves to damage our families even further. There are helpers and healers who are trained and waiting for women to seek help,” licensed mental health care therapist Stephanie Flores said.

Flores’ blog The Focus on You, features posts on affirmations and journal prompts to inspire and encourage self-care. With social media, self-care now has a platform with bloggers like Flores and activists like Dior Vargas creating opportunities for dialogue and de-stigmatizing mental illness among people of color.

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This birthday feels different. The world is different. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be preparing protest signs AGAIN but this time against concentration camps in the U.S. Yeah I went there. It feels wrong to “celebrate” or sing with a cake. I just wanna enjoy my loved ones and the blessings without fanfare. World Cup soccer has been a welcomed distraction (thank you Mexico 🇲🇽). I need my strength and health to not only fight for my clients here in Vegas but to lend my voice to the innocent children who deserve better. That’s how I can make this year count. Thank you friends and fam for all the texts and posts today. I feel blessed. ❤️ #birthday #latinablogger #endfamilyseparation #thefocusonyou

A post shared by Stefanie Flores (@thefocusonyou) on

Vargas, whose photo project on mental illness among people of color is being released as a book this year—is currently studying for her Masters of Public Health at New York University and is a staunch advocate for diversity among health care workers. “Representation matters and while this is not guaranteed, having someone who understands your culture personally can lead to better and improved forms of treatment within therapy.”

There are only 29 Latino mental-health professionals for every 100,000 Latinos in the U.S., compared to 173 non-Hispanic white providers per 100,000 non-Hispanic whites. In addition to the language barriers that might deter Latinos from seeking help, there’s also the  cost factor. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2016 19.6 percent of Latinos under the age of 65 were uninsured.

Roman recalls the lack of resources available to her growing up and through a series of sexual assaults and abuses, she suffered a breakdown earlier this year that led to a breakthrough. “As an adult with recurring traumatic events, I’ve learned to listen to my inner guidance. I’m learning now to care for that little girl who felt so alone, so out of touch. Yoga and meditation has helped tremendously, even if it meant sitting in the shower for hours just to release the pain.”

Castanon also found solace of her own through a Facebook page dedicated to her daughter that currently has more than 600 members. “I will be your voice for as long as I live and carry on your memory,” Castonon writes in one of her posts. She regularly participates in suicide awareness walks in honor of her daughter.

The use of Facebook as a form of healing is a practice Flores advocates as it provides a safe space to talk. “Set a boundary for yourself about how much you want to share before jumping in. Private Facebook groups can be a safe way to learn about healing, get feedback from others and hopefully ask questions without being judged” she says.

These pathways to developing conversations on mental health are becoming the foundations for acceptance. “Talk about what hurts, what makes you cry. The more you talk, the more people gather around you, support you, listen to you, and ultimately share their stories. It’s a funny place to be in this country, I feel as though we have no space here. It is important to create our own by joining together, this is possible” Roman says. “Communities of color need to know that there are people out there, who look like them, speak their language and understand their roots, traditions and values.”

PEW Research Center found that in 2008, 83 percent of Latinos learned some information about health from the media and 70 percent from family and the community. With the rising awareness and activists speaking up and creating safe spaces, it seems more people of color are making mental health and self-care a priority, though there’s still more work to be done within the culture.

“I started going to support group about nine months after Sarah died, it helped me so much to know that I was not alone.  In hindsight, I wish I had known then, what I know now,” Castanon said. “The Latino community for the most part does not talk about mental health, it’s usually attributed to ‘that is how he/she is, just let them be’. I am glad to see the conversation is starting.”

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