You are not crazy: Mental health stigma among Latinx community

Story and photos by SAYAKA KOCHI

One of the frequently discussed topics is that Latinx people are less likely to seek mental health treatment by themselves. Even when they are suffering from severe mental disorders, asking someone for help isn’t easy. There are several reasons why they cannot signal SOS.

“I didn’t want to admit that I was not OK,” Diana Aguilera said. Aguilera was born in Mexico and moved to Utah at age 10. She is a Peer Programs coordinator at the Latino Behavioral Health Services (LBHS) located at 3471 S. West Temple in Salt Lake City. LBHS is a nonprofit organization for unserved Latinx and Hispanic Utah citizens with mental illnesses, co-founded by Jacqueline Gomez-Arias and other contributors.

Before Aguilera became involved in LBHS, she had been suffering from depression, triggered by a harsh breakup. Because of her mental breakdown, she said she gave up school, her desire to be a social worker, and full-time work.

“I went to bed every day and like ‘please, don’t wake up anymore.’ I asked my body to give up because I couldn’t literally go on anymore,” Aguilera said. “I didn’t like to talk about it. I tried to hide it. Because I didn’t want my family to feel guilty.”

While she was ignoring her mental breakdown, she started volunteering at LBHS to help others in 2015. There, she said she met people with depression and those who have overcome their mental illnesses. Through being with them, she said she could finally acknowledge that she had to seek help.

“I met one of the founding members, Jacqueline [Gomez-Arias]. She was so open about her mental health issues. Through the conversation with her, she was like ‘you need help. You have depression. You have to seek help,’” Aguilera said. “Hearing from her, it was reassuring that it’s OK, I’ll be fine.”

With the help of Gomez-Arias and Aguilera’s sister, she was able to find a therapist and start fighting against her depression. At this point, health insurance is one of the main reasons that Latinx people cannot seek treatment. According to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one-third of Latinx immigrants are uninsured.

“I was really lucky and privileged that I had health insurance. Not everyone has health insurance. Not everyone can afford a therapist,” Aguilera said.

After several years of taking multiple medications and attending therapy, she said her mental health slowly but steadily recovered.

“Right now, I’m doing very well,” Aguilera said. “I don’t think that is a magic thing. It’s just a huge combination of everything.”

Aguilera also explained the importance of belonging in the community. “I’ve gone through therapy but that wasn’t super enough. For my recovery, I needed my community. Latino Behavioral has been my community. That was the most important thing for me.”

Like Aguilera, Carla Astorga had also suffered from mental breakdown for a few decades. Astorga was born and raised in Lima, Peru, which was a “corrupted” place for her to live. Through a lot of traumatic events from her childhood, Astorga said that her mind was broken. To escape from such a harsh environment, she said she decided to move to Utah in 2005.

“I didn’t recognize my symptoms at first. I felt sadness for whole days. So I didn’t know that it became a depression,” Astorga said.

Ten years had passed since she escaped from her country, but she said her symptoms reached such a level that she couldn’t stand them anymore.

“Anxiety, depression, panic attack, paranoid, fear — everything was starting to growing up and growing up,” Astorga said. “I started to see things that were not there. One day, I was driving to send my kids to school. After that, I went to the police station, because I smelled a bomb in my car. Police checked my car, but there was no bomb.”

At this moment, Astorga said she realized for the first time that she had a mental illness. She then decided to take treatment. As a first step, she came to visit LBHS to pull herself out of the darkness. She said she also took psychiatric medication, therapy, and some training provided by NAMI, which is the nation’s largest mental health organization. Over a couple of years going through hard times, she could finally overcome her mental disorder.

“The most successful part of my recovery was to be able to find one place with my own culture and language that I could feel like I was at home,” Astorga said.

Ever since her symptoms improved, she has been helping people at LBHS as a peer supporter and at NAMI as a Wasatch/Summit affiliate leader.

“I didn’t see enough sources with my own language in my area. Latino people need more sources for mental health,” Astorga said. “When I was getting recovered, I started to be aware that I had confidence and trusted myself. So I started thinking that I wanted to help other people.”

Astorga said a lack of knowledge is the main issue for Latinx people when they develop mental illnesses.

“In my culture, if you go to a psychologist or a doctor to take medicines, you are crazy,” Astorga said.

As Astorga pointed out, finding a peer mentor who has the same cultural background is really hard for underrepresented minorities.

Laiyan Bawadeen, a counseling intern for international students at the University of Utah, addressed this cultural difference issue from a counselor’s perspective.

“To address cultural differences in general, it is important that a counselor uses a multicultural viewpoint where they approach counseling through the context of the student’s world and culture while their own values or bias is not more important than that of the student,” Bawadeen said in an email interview.

Bawadeen is half Taiwanese and half Sri Lankan, and she is pursuing her master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling at the U. As a member of the minority group, Bawadeen also suggested the importance of correct knowledge about mental treatment.

“I think demystifying what mental health [is], understanding what a counseling session looks like and what to expect can help demystify the counseling process, remove the stigma around mental health and make it easier for individuals to seek help,” Bawadeen said.

Seeking help is not easy for Latinx and other minority people. This might be because of the language barrier, not having health insurance, stigma, or caring so much about families or those who are closest to them. However, at some point, they need help.

Astorga said, “Latino[x] people are very strong. They were fighters or warriors. So they say they can do this alone, but they can’t.”

 

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