b'ing stigma-free


“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.”

Image: Fighting the stigma of mental illness in the Latino communityGrowing 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[1]. 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[2]. 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.


[1]  U.S. Census Bureau, National Characteristics: Vintage 2011 (2011). http://www.census.gov/popest/data/national/asrh/2011/index.html. Accessed April 28, 2014.

[2] 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.


Image: Stephanie Uribe, guest blogger from The Carter Center

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. 


When I told a friend that I’d been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he said, “Are you sure? I mean, I’ve been to your apartment — it doesn’t seem like you clean a lot.”

I couldn’t really blame him for thinking that’s what OCD is all about, but it didn’t make itImage: Intrusive Thoughts any less frustrating. I was in an early, vulnerable stage and while I had welcomed my diagnosis because it meant I could be treated, I wasn’t ready to share many details.

Saying “I have OCD” isn’t necessarily a big deal, but explaining the impact it had on my life for years and years—that is hard. I can’t nonchalantly tell a co-worker, “No, no, I’ve never washed my hands excessively, but I did have an irrational fear that I might be a child molester.” It’s usually not the right time or place to explain how much I suffered from horrible, intrusive thoughts that made me question who I was and think I was morally bankrupt. And it’s painful to talk about how my obsessions led me to consider suicide before I finally received professional help.

Initially I feared how people might react to my “confession,” and I didn’t talk about my diagnosis. People often picture an OCD sufferer as a super-organized person who keeps everything spotless. They don’t know how to reconcile that preconception with my reality. Let me tell you—I am not very organized, and my house is definitely not that clean. People figure that if I have OCD, then the disorder can’t be so bad. They think I must have a mild case, because have you seen my desk drawer? What a mess!

Steering people away from that relatively innocuous impression and toward my own taboo, intrusive thoughts sometimes feels like a bad idea, like I’m welcoming judgment. I’m aware that I’m sacrificing privacy and breaking the protective bubble around me in my efforts to combat stigma.

One day a co-worker approached me after she’d read an article I’d written about OCD and told me she thinks she might have OCD too, because she keeps her clothes really organized. Not up to the task of explanation, I nodded and smiled and joked that being neat is definitely not a “symptom” I have.

Another day, a different co-worker pointed to her neat row of pencils, thinking we had something in common. And I felt the blood rush to my face. I asked her if organizing her pencils like that had ever made her cry, or if she couldn’t stop thinking about the pencils if they weren’t straight. “Do you straighten your pencils because you think a family member will die if you don’t?” I asked, my voice shaking.

The more pervasive these misconceptions are, the harder it is for people to get help when they are suffering. That’s the biggest problem with people’s nonchalance about the disorder — thinking it’s a small set of symptoms and not realizing how terrible it can be. It took me years to get the help I needed because it never occurred to me that I had a problem that could be treated. My knowledge about OCD was limited to what I saw on TV and in movies; I didn’t see a connection between what the media portrayed and my own unwanted thoughts. I thought I was a bad person. I was afraid to tell friends or family members because I thought they’d judge me or stop loving me. I was even hesitant to tell a therapist, because my thoughts were so wrong I really believed they’d have a professional, moral, and legal obligation to report me to the authorities or have me checked into a psychiatric ward.

Instead I told a few people I was depressed, and I confided to one of my oldest friends that I tend to obsess about things. She mentioned OCD, and I started to research the disorder. I made an appointment with an OCD specialist. Sharing my darkest secrets with him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but it saved my life.

So even though I don’t always feel up to the challenge of spreading awareness, and sometimes I get emotional about it, I won’t give up. If I can keep others from suffering for as long as I did, it will be worth it.


Image of Alison Dotson, guest bloggerAlison Dotson is a writer, copyeditor, and proofreader who was diagnosed with OCD at age 26, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation, and has been featured as an OCD advocate on the International OCD Foundation Blog, the Huffington Post, and in Glamour magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two rescue dogs.

Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life. You can find her book, along with other books about b‘ing stigma-free, in our bookstore.


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