“Hijita, eso es algo que no debería ser compartido fuera de la familia.”
“Daughter, that is something that should not be shared outside of the family.”
Growing up as a child of two Mexican immigrants, and later as a counselor working in the Latino community, I have heard this sentiment often. Deeply ingrained within the Latino culture one finds a great amount of stigma and discrimination against mental illness — even to the point where people are afraid to seek help because of fears they will be perceived by their community as being ‘loco,’ or ‘crazy.’
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2011), by 2050 Hispanics will make up approximately 30 percent of the US population. As this population increases, its need for mental health services and supports will likely grow. Unfortunately Latinos are not seeking these services. A study in Health Services Research (2013) by Benjamin Le Cook found that only 27 percent of Latinos in need of mental health care actually sought help. This reluctance to seek care is due to a number of factors, including self-stigma and a fear of social perception.
Stigma against mental illness in the Latino community hits close to home for me. I actively fight myths and misperceptions about it through my work with journalists at The Carter Center, promoting accurate and sensitive depictions of mental illness in the media. In fact, one of the greatest misperceptions or misunderstandings within the Latino community revolves around the concept of asking for help in the form of talk therapy. During my time at a clinic for expectant or recently delivered Latina mothers, I found that many mothers did not realize they could benefit from therapy.
Sitting in front of me with a look of complete exhaustion on her face, I remember staring into Alejandra’s* beautiful brown eyes. She was a 23-year-old mother of newborn twin girls and had a rambunctious two-year-old in tow. Alejandra barely had enough energy to get through each day. She was depressed and exhausted. Alejandra came into the clinic for ‘free’ baby supplies, but she learned that she could also find some relief for herself through talk therapy with me. She had never realized that therapy was something she could benefit from, nor did she know it could re-energize her for the week. Eighty percent of the mothers with whom I worked were dealing with mild to severe depression; many felt like they had to figure out everything on their own, not wanting to be a burden to others.
Latinos don’t typically put a name to feelings like anxiety or discuss an emotional problem with others, even their closest relatives. My clients were dealing with a double dose of stress: being new mothers, as well as being in a new country. Once in a safe environment and given the opportunity to talk with a therapist, they could begin their road to recovery.
I urge all people, no matter what one’s ethnic background, to seek help if needed. It is NOT weak or needy to reach out for help and to speak about personal challenges when it is safe to do so. There is strength in vulnerability and a real courage found in someone who asks for the help he or she needs. Let’s break this cycle of cultural stigma together. We need to encourage a culture of recovery in all our interactions so that one day we can be a culture of wellness that promotes social inclusion, not only for Latinos, but for all.
I hope one day I will have a different conversation with my daughter.
“Hija, tu puedes compartir tus preocupaciones de salud mental fuera de la familia para obtener la ayuda que necesitas.”
“Daughter, you can share your mental health concerns outside of the family to get the help you need.”
* Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.
 U.S. Census Bureau, National Characteristics: Vintage 2011 (2011). http://www.census.gov/popest/data/national/asrh/2011/index.html. Accessed April 28, 2014.
 Center for Advancing Health, Blacks and Latinos Seek Mental Health Care Less Often (2013), http://www.cfah.org/hbns/2013/blacks-and-latinos-seek-mental-health-care-less-often. Accessed April 28, 2014.
Stephanie Uribe, M.Sc., M.Ed., is a program associate for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center where she works with journalists to increase accurate reporting about mental health issues. This program decreases incorrect, stereotypical information about mental illness that leads to stigma. In addition to her work there, she actively volunteers on the planning committee for the UNESCO Annual Bioethics Art Competition and is a planning committee member with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta Young Leaders.
Photo: The Carter Center/P. Rohe.