I’m part of the largest ethnic minority group in the United States. By 2050, Latinos will account for 25% of the U.S. population. These rising numbers keep most politicians scratching their heads on how to handle immigration issues wishing there was an easy way out for them of course. In my opinion, they only help to dig the deep-roots of discrimination, all while still gaining followers. Others don’t even care about throwing around damaging lies, fueling the violent media machine of prejudice against foreigners who wish to live in this country.
This invisible preconception precludes the common stereotypes many Latinos feel offended by; the feisty Latina, loud, spicy, or gang members, “the machista”, and the ones who do the job a gringo doesn’t want to take. I’ve come to embrace the funny side of many of these stereotypes. I feel proud of the traditions, ethics, language, and family values that give us Latinos, a strong sense of identity.
Since my arrival in the free world, one of my visions was to work and help many of the Latinos who suffer from stigma and discrimination. Labels don’t offend me, but they’re the antithesis of the vast Hispanic culture. This vision of mine has widened in the last 2 years, most specifically, in the mental health field, in part because of my personal experience with mental illness and the consequent stigma from my family and friends. I do not blame them at all; it’s part of poor communication and those typical stereotypes I mentioned before. However, it is important to understand the prevalence of depression in the Latino. I was raised on the value of self-reliance. It started early in childhood, living with an alcoholic father meant living in constant vigilance. My older sister took charge of the house when my mother had to leave for work. In my heart, I know mother did everything she could to keep us in a safe environment, but it was not possible. We endured many years of domestic violence from my father, and two drug addict uncles. I couldn’t understand why it was happening; I’d ask my grandmother why God had punished us this way. Especially her, living with a sense of hopelessness because she didn’t know what to do with my uncles, both of them schizophrenics. It is sad to say they never fully recovered from drug use. When I reflect on those painful memories, I also come to an agreement of the lack of resources my family had. Sure my uncles received psychiatric help in Honduras many times, but the lack of staff, medicine, and support groups made it almost impossible to reach any type of recovery or stability. Even today, Latin American countries do not have the necessary mental health resources available, leaving people in the abyss of depression or other mood disorders.
Once I moved to the U.S. this sense of self-reliance grew stronger. I had to think fast, learn the language, find a job, etc…It was hard. Studies have found that between 40-60% of Latinos have limited English proficiency. I was depressed, but I couldn’t talk about it with my mother; I didn’t want to be a burden. The obstacle of the language barrier has such an effect on getting diagnosis and treatment that it took me years to find the help I needed. Many don’t realize the effect language has on an individual coming from a different country, a different culture. This culture shock remains of someone becoming more withdrawn and not able to express emotions, let alone describing mental illness symptoms. The concept of suffering from mental illness within the Latino community can have devastating consequences. My family is extremely religious, meaning their views about depression rely on letting the shame of sin or “demons” take residence inside the mind, the soul, and the will. “Stephanie you are depressed because you won’t attend church on Sundays.” “All you need to do is pray.” “You need to break free from the curse of your uncles in our family.” I remember back in 1997, when my mother took all our CDs to the trashcan, she’d monitor what we watch on T.V. and had friends coming over for “spiritual liberation.” I was more prone to have dissociative-type experiences, hallucinations, thinking God was talking to me.
There is a big contrast between cultural experiences and personality disorders. For most Latinos, psychiatric illness is due to stress and acculturation, rather than chemical imbalances in the brain. The use of medication heightens the stigma among Latinos; I battled for years for making the decision to give my son medication for ADHD. My family thought I’d taken the easy way out. There is a saying “No se lava la ropa en casa ajena” (One must not wash their dirty clothes in someone else’s home). Problems are handled within the family and it shouldn’t be discussed outside the home.
In general, immigration status also plays a strong influence on Latino mental health. A high percent of Hispanics do not have insurance, and also; the lack of Spanish-speaking mental health staff makes it difficult to check any effectiveness in treatment. The Hispanic community is taking gigantic steps within the political realm amid harsh criticism, unveiling the destructive label of anti-immigration laws and taking measures of creating sensitive mental health services for Latino immigrants. I believe with more participation, Latinos will break away from old stereotypes and bring new air to a contaminated world.
Stephanie Ortez is a quirky mother of two wonderful boys, addicted to books and coffee. She works with homeschooled students for the George Washington University school online and the International Academy. Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder in her mid-twenties, she is an advocate for those with bipolar disorder and member of Stigma Fighters. She also uses writing as therapy on her blog https://stephanieortez.
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