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Mental illness: denied or unidentified?

The first step is acknowledging it

It took a conversation with an enlightened friend back in 1995 to realize I was dealing with bouts of mild depression, a form of mental illness. She had dealt with her own psychological stress, and saw similar signs in me: low energy, lack of direction, sadness, no appetite, and poor self-esteem. I chalked it up to my cycle, my burden to bear as a woman.

Once I started the mental excavation process with a psychotherapist, I realized it was not hormonal at all. In fact, I learned I was in so deep, I was in denial of my denial. Two years and many sessions later, much of the denial was dumped to make room for a load of self-love. Trite, I know, but it’s true. And it helped.

Denial runs in my family. One dear relative will say in one breath in her charming, broken English, “I am not a dee-prressed person, ¿me entiendes? Pero, ay, ¡ya no quiero vivir!” The times I’ve suggested therapy, she’s retorted, “Tú estás loca!” and the subject was quickly dropped.

Let’s talk about it

Mental illness is not an easy subject to broach, but among Latinos, it’s even more difficult. But mental health, in itself, is a benign topic: it’s how we think, feel and act as we take on life. It affects how we handle stress, choices and relationships. It is as vital as physical health at any age.

Mental health encompasses worry, sadness, anxiety, anger, depression. We all feel these emotions. They’re normal. But sometimes the negative emotion hangs on, intensifies and makes it hard to face the day, the week, sometimes months -– and conceivably becomes mental illness.

Depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive/compulsive behavior and anxiety are examples of mental illness. They’re so common the World Health Organization (WHO) declared major depression the leading cause of disability over heart disease in the U.S. and Canada.

For Hispanics, the statistics are concerning. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), they suffer disproportionately from depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, yet less than one in 11 individuals seek help for it.

Lack of health insurance contributes to this disparity, but so does social stigma. The Latino community simply doesn’t talk about enfermedad mental. And religion plays its part, too, with shame, guilt and the notion that mental illness is some sort of punishment from God.

Cognizant of this, Magellan Health Services of Arizona reached out to the Latino community last year with the help of the Catholic diocese of Phoenix, and wrote a homily about mental health, which was read at the churches during mass. CEO Richard Clarke, Ph.D., who leads Magellan’s public sector arm, said this year they’ve worked with other denominations and chambers of commerce, and have held interactive town hall meetings to spread the word. “If we don’t start talking about it and raising the issues, then people who really need care won’t be getting it,” says Clarke.

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This Article appears on the August 2010 issue of LPM under Health

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