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Mental illness: denied or unidentified?

The first step is acknowledging it

“The Latino community doesn’t want to talk to anyone about their mental health issues,” says Gloria Abril. “They just want to take home the brochure.” Abril, VP of NAMI Phoenix, one of the local chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, found her path when her teenage nephew reached a life-or-death situation with his own mental illness. On May 11, 2006, when she asked the ER doctor what her nephew’s diagnosis was, he rattled off a list of mental disorders that made her head spin. Abril knew she had work to do. She started going to libraries, lectures and seminars to learn everything she could about mental illness. She trained with NAMI two years ago to lead family support groups in Spanish and English. At first she was scheduling two meetings a month in Spanish, but no one was showing up. She cut down to every third Thursday, and she still finds herself sitting alone at most meetings. Abril still has work to do.

The stigma of the word loco, the fear of the unknown, and denial stops Latino families from seeking long-term help.

“‘We are not like that,’ they’ll say to me,” says Abril. “‘God wouldn’t do this to us.’ They simply don’t want to discuss it.”

Those more willing to get help are mostly oblivious of the symptoms of mental illness. Men will talk to Abril and tell her their wives are “lazy” now that they’ve had a baby. They don’t know about post-partum depression. And women wonder why their husbands come home from work, skip dinner with the family and glaze over in front of the television without knowing what show is on. “A lot of it is lack of awareness,” says Abril.

What affects whom?

For Latinos, depression, family difficulties and substance abuse are the leading contributors to mental illness, but other angst-ridden factors come into play, including down economic times and societal challenges. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the incidence of mental illness among Hispanics in the United States is similar to non-Hispanic whites, but dealing with discrimination and racism compounds anxiety and depression.

“Latinos have to deal with racism, the immigration law, other social factors that make it feel like we’re going backwards in time,” says Clarke, “and it creates a sense of losing power, feeling helpless.”

Hispanics living in a society that doesn’t jive with culturally or religiously prescribed norms changes the dynamics of their inherent way of life. Women want to work and socialize more, and teenagers are conflicted by opposing ideas from their family and peers. The father’s traditional role as protector and provider is challenged, and the family starts to deteriorate. Even a chronic physical ailment can affect a person’s disposition and could lead to depression – or vice versa.

Ethnicity aside, an individual’s emotions are affected in different ways by a myriad of things, but mental illness impacts the entire family – repercussions reverberate to everyone in that social circle. Healing is not just for the individual but for everyone in his or her life.

Men and women

For Latino men, alcohol abuse is the most prevalent problem. Although it’s a behavioral issue, it’s a way to self-medicate if depression exists. Regardless, it’s a problem that ought to be addressed before it leads to worse, including domestic violence or violence in general.

According to the National Latino and Asian American study released in 2006 by the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at Cambridge Health Alliance, 54 percent of Latino men who had experienced major depression did not realize they had a mental health problem – or perhaps they didn’t want to admit it. Machismo likely plays into it, but not knowing the symptoms is another matter. Men may chalk it up to a bad day or week, or bury their emotions in their work or a project. Instead of acknowledging their feelings and talking to someone, they get irritable, frustrated or angry or engage in reckless behavior. But even if aware, Latinos – and most men – are reluctant to get treatment.

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

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