Latinos are no different when it comes to prevalence of mental health conditions when compared to the rest of the population. However, your concerns or experiences and how you understand and cope with these conditions may be different.
This page focuses on the common challenges many Latinos face in seeking mental health care so that you know how to find help.
Why does mental health matter?
Without mental health we can’t be healthy. Any part of the body—including the brain—can get sick. We all experience emotional ups and downs from time to time that are caused by events in our lives. Mental health conditions go beyond these emotional reactions to specific situations. They are medical conditions that cause changes in how we think and feel and in our mood. These changes can alter your life because they make it hard to relate to others and function like you used to. Without proper treatment, mental health conditions can worsen and make day-to-day life hard.
If you feel you or a loved one might be experiencing a mental health condition, remember that these are biological disorders. Anyone can develop a mental health problem. It isn’t you fault or your family’s fault. Seeking treatment can help you live a fulfilled life. Getting help is a way to strengthen yourself and your family for the future.
How Do Mental Health Conditions Affect the Latino Community?
Common mental health disorders among Latinos are generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcoholism. Additionally, Latina high school girls have high rates of suicide attempts.
While Latino communities show similar susceptibility to mental illness as the general population, unfortunately, we experience disparities in access to treatment and in the quality of treatment we receive. This inequality puts us at a higher risk for more severe and persistent forms of mental health conditions.
As a community, Latinos are less likely to seek mental health treatment. A 2001 Surgeon General’s report found that only 20% of Latinos with symptoms of a psychological disorder talk to a doctor about their concerns. Only 10% contact a mental health specialist. Yet, without treatment, certain mental health conditions can worsen and become disabling.
Issues to Consider
Different reasons prevent Latinos from seeking treatment and receiving quality care.
Lack of Information and Misunderstanding about Mental Health
Overall, the Latino community does not talk about mental health issues. There is little information about this topic. We cannot know what nobody has taught us. Many Latinos do not seek treatment because they don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions or know where to find help.
This lack of information also increases the stigma associated with mental health issues. Many Latinos do not seek treatment for fear of being labeled as “locos” (crazy) or as having a mental health condition because this may cause shame.
Don’t let the fear of what others may think prevent you or a loved one from getting better. One in 5 people is affected by mental illness. This means that, even if we don’t talk about it, most likely, we have one of these illnesses or know someone who does.
Many of us know el dicho “la ropa sucia se lava en casa” (similar to “don’t air your dirty laundry in public”). The Latino community tends to be very private and often do not want to talk in public about challenges at home.
Don’t worry. Seeking mental health treatment doesn’t mean you will lose your privacy. Your diagnosis, treatment plan and discussions with your mental health providers are confidential. They cannot share this information with others without your permission. Furthermore, mental health providers are professionals that understand what you are going through. They will listen without judgment.
Language barriers can make communicating with doctors difficult. Many medical professionals today do speak some medical Spanish, particularly in parts of the country with large Latino populations, but they may not necessarily understand cultural issues.
If you or your loved one that needs help does not speak English, or does not speak it well, you have the right to receive language-access services at institutions that receive funding from the federal government. You have the right to request a trained interpreter and to receive forms and information in Spanish.
Lack of Health Insurance
Latinos account for one-third of the uninsured. A significant percentage of the Latino population works low-wage jobs or is self-employed. Often these Latinos do not have health insurance.
The Affordable Care Act is making it easier and more affordable to get insured. Learn more at https://www.cuidadodesalud.gov/es/.
Cultural differences may lead doctors to misdiagnose Latinos. For instance, Latinos may describe the symptoms of depression as “nervios” (nervousness), tiredness or a physical ailment. These symptoms are consistent with depression, but doctors who are not aware of how culture influences mental health may not recognize that these could be signs of depression.
For immigrants who arrive without documentation, the fear of deportation can prevent them from seeking help. For example, even though millions of children of undocumented immigrants are eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, most families are afraid to register.
If you do not have papers, seek out clinics and resources that care for all persons. Latino-based organizations often provide services regardless of legal status.
Natural Medicine and Home Remedies
Some Latinos heavily relay on traditional healers and home remedies to deal with health-related issues. Mental health may not be an exception. If these healing methods are important to you, do use them. However, we encourage you to seek a mental health professional or a primary care doctor. Ask your doctor to make these healing practices part of your treatment plan. Mental health professionals have experience and knowledge of effective types of treatments and what may work for you. You may use both approaches in your road to recovery.
Faith and Spirituality
Faith and spirituality can provide support and help you deal with a mental health condition. If spirituality is important to you, talk to your doctors about how important faith is to you. Your spiritual practices can be a part of your treatment plan.
Reach out to your spiritual leaders and faith community. They might be able to provide help and support during the difficult times caused by mental health conditions. At the same time, unfortunately, sometimes faith communities can be a source of additional distress if they are not well informed and do not know how to support families dealing with these conditions.
Cultural Competence in Service Delivery
Culture—a person’s beliefs, norms, values and language—plays a key role in every aspect of our lives, including mental health. Cultural competence is a doctor’s ability to recognize and understand the role culture (yours and the doctor’s) plays in treatment and to adapt to this reality to meet your needs. Unfortunately, research has shown lack of cultural competence in mental health care. This results in misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. Latinos and other multicultural communities tend to receive poorer quality of care.
However, you can improve your odds of getting culturally sensitive care.
While we recommend you go directly to a mental health professional because this is their area of expertise, if you do not feel comfortable right away, your primary care doctor is a great place to start. Your doctor may be able to start the assessment or help you get a referral to a mental health professional.
Unfortunately, while you might prefer finding a Latino mental health professional, this is not often possible because there are a small percentage of Latino providers. The good news is that professionals are increasingly required to learn how to effectively treat people from diverse backgrounds. However, many providers still lack cultural competence and do not know how to effectively treat Latinos.
When meeting with your provider, ask questions to get a sense of his or her level of cultural sensitivity. Do not feel bad about asking questions. Providers expect and welcome questions from their patients; this helps them better understand you and what is important to you. Your questions give your doctor and health care team important information about you, such as your main health care concerns. Here are some questions you could ask:
- Have you treated other Latinos?
- Have you received training in cultural competence or on Latino mental health?
- How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?
- How do you plan to integrate my beliefs and practices in my treatment?
A provider who understands your culture and needs will know culturally specific information. For example, you might describe what you are feeling with commonly used Latino phrases such as “Me duele el corazón.” While this literally means “my heart hurts,” it is an expression of emotional distress, not a sign of chest pain. A culturally sensitive doctor would be aware of this and would not assume you were talking about actual chest pain.
Your mental health provider will play an important role in your treatment, so make sure you can work with this person and that you communicate well together. Mention your beliefs, values and cultural characteristics. Make sure the provider understands them so that they can be considered in the course of your treatment. For example, mention whether it is important that your family be part of your treatment.
If finances are preventing you from finding help, contact a local health or mental health clinic or your local government to see what services you qualify for. You can find contact information online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or by calling the National Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357). If you do not have papers, contact local Latino organizations that might be able to help or provide a referral.
- NAMI’s Compartiendo Esperanza is a 90-minute program to increase mental health awareness in Latino communities by sharing the presenters’ journeys to recovery and exploring signs and symptoms of mental health conditions. The program also highlights how and where to find help.
- Compartiendo Esperanza: No Hay Salud Sin Salud Mental: Through stories and quotes, this booklet provides mental health information in a sensitive manner. Recovery is possible, and this booklet tells you where to find more information, seek help and be supportive. You can preview the booklet for free or buy hard copies through the NAMI Bookstore.