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The Stigma of Mental Health in the Latino/a Community

Compared to many medical conditions, mental illness is the most taboo for the
Latino/a community. Not only do most Latino/Hispanic cope in silence with a mental
illness but also encounter social, cultural, and political constraints. Barriers such as
immigration status, cultural beliefs, and language divide reduce help-seeking behaviors.

The Latino/a community faces many unique obstacles like extensive migration to the United States, poverty, and witnessing community violence that contributes to prolonged suffering. The following will demonstrate challenges 2 Latino/a and Hispanic women face seeking help for mental illness.

WALK A MILE IN OUR SHOES
I want you to close your eyes. I want you to imagine being in a therapy office waiting for your name to be called. You look around the office and don’t see anything that reminds you of home. You try your best to appear confident but your palms start to get sweaty.

You finally hear your name and look up to find someone who does not look like you.
During the session, you notice there is an interpreter in the room which makes you feel uncomfortable. You leave the office feeling misunderstood and unheard.
Over the years, I went to multiple therapists, majority White who did not look like me.

My parents would take me to White therapists who were old, male, and unrelatable. It was discouraging, I was not able to confide in them. In addition, my parents were
encouraging but lacked understanding of my situation and how to handle the challenges that came with it causing me to be distrusting of them. My parents were solely trying their best to get me the help I needed. It wasn’t until my adult years that I was able to find a therapist who looked like me. I was in community college when I saw people who looked like me in a therapist’s office. I remember till this day, the therapist, she was small, had tanned skin and long black hair. I was in utter shock to find myself talking to someone who looked like me and not your typical white therapist. The therapist, Ms. Garcia was extremely kind and understanding of my problems. We had similar experiences such as being from the Latin community. Unfortunately, it took me to be 26 years old to find someone who looked like me to break my silence and speak to someone.

THE MISCONCEPTIONS OF PSYCHOTROPIC MEDICATION
Misinformation and lack of education regarding mental health is a major
component that affects my life. Having been diagnosed with depression and anxiety at an early age, a psychiatrist prescribed me medication as a tool to help manage and
alleviate some symptoms that I was having. My mother never took me back to that
psychiatrist and made sure I have never prescribed that medication after that first
month-long prescription claiming that she “didn’t want [me] to get addicted to the pills”.

After turning 19 and transitioning into a more rigorous and independent college lifestyle, I began to notice more symptoms that prevented me from fully being able to function to the best of my ability. After consulting my therapist, she recommended that I go to my primary care doctor to request Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors(SSRI’s), more commonly known as antidepressants. I also talked to my older sister about the new prescription and alongside my therapist’s opinion, I decided to not tell my parents because of their previous reaction. After all, I am of legal age and have full discretion over my medical decisions under US law.

I then met with my primary care doctor, who listened to my symptoms, asked
some follow-up questions, prescribed me Lexapro, and then set up a follow-up
appointment to ensure I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms or reactions to the new
medication. I began to feel like myself again, or rather I began to feel like there was a “myself” to discover. I began to feel like I could truly depend on myself and think clearly rather than feel so overwhelmed by emotion that I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. The medication was working its scientific magic. After that first month check-in, my primary care doctor and I decided to meet every three months to refill my prescription and make sure I still wasn’t experiencing any negative symptoms. My therapist, sister, primary care doctor, close friends that I checked in with, and I began to celebrate the positive changes that I tangibly saw and felt with the medication.
However, this system that had been set up didn’t last too long after someone that
worked at my primary care doctor’s office made a mistake and didn’t file a bill through my insurance. A bill was sent to my house and inevitably my parents found out. Then began the comments that I was essentially a drug addict in the making, that I should “take those pills in the morning so [I’m] off the high by nighttime”, and that I had “manipulated [my] therapist and the doctor into giving [me] drugs.” I was swamped by the notion that “si lo traes a dios, todo se va a arreglar.” After about two days of this at the dinner table, I got up and stepped back from what felt like constant verbal attacks on a
beneficial tool that I had been using. For weeks my mother didn’t speak to me outside of the word “hello” when coming back from work…

This isn’t far off of what others experience within the Latino community regarding
mental health and the surrounding tools that alleviate pressure from mental illnesses
and the general pressures of life. The Latino community needs to become aware of how useful tools such as medication or therapists can be. The notion that all mental health medications are “street drugs” or “speed” with side effects that outweigh the benefits is a stigma that must be halted and educated upon. Mental health and the means by which individuals cope with it needs to be brought to the forefront of conversation as it is typically a well-hidden secret, only whispered about behind closed doors within the Latino/a community. Systems within society make resources such as these more accessible for the purpose of benefiting those who need these tools. Son para ayudarnos.

The Latino/Hispanic community confronts social and political constraints when
seeking mental health services. In addition, our communities’ personal beliefs and biases continue to play a role in how we seek help. For example, taking psychotropic
medication is seen as “addictive” and “ungodly”. These generational perspectives
continue to stigmatize mental illness.

Alecxia Ceballos
Alecxia Ceballos, NCC, MA is a National Certified Counselor, Pre Licensed Therapist, who currently works for The Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio Texas.

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