LPM Staff

Mental illness: denied or unidentified?

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Depression is the most common mental health condition among Latinas, who experience it twice as much as Latino men, according to a 2000 study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Recently immigrated women are especially prone to depression as they adjust to a new culture and the related stress.

Signs can include one or several of a variety of classic symptoms that last two weeks or more: persistent sadness or melancolía; changes in sleeping and eating routines; lack of energy or concentration; unexplained weight gain or loss; no interest or pleasure in things once enjoyed, and lack of concern for self-image.

Hispanic women are more apt to seek help for depression than men, but lack of insurance and shame stop 21 percent of them from doing so.

The elderly

Of any group, los mayores are the most challenging to reach when it comes to mental health. Generally seen as wise and respectable within their community, the Latino elderly are the last to admit any emotional breakdown. Set in their ways and their beliefs, mental illness, or ataque de nervios as they would prefer to call it, is just part of getting old.

Symptoms of an ataque can include mood swings, confusion, irritability, aggression, language breakdown, long-term memory loss and general withdrawal. More extreme symptoms include uncontrollable crying, trembling, verbal or physical aggression and dissociative experiences. Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, is commonly dismissed as an element of aging.

Chronic physical ailments like diabetes and high blood pressure are oftentimes indicators of depression. Though they can be managed with medication, the psychological aspect needs to be addressed, too.

Rarely do the Latino elderly seek help from a mental health professional and instead tough it out and turn to prayer or their local priest.


For Latino teens, a bicultural life is hard. The pressure to adopt the “American way” yet hold on to their cultural roots creates a recipe for serious levels of stress, including suicidal tendencies. (Read the exclusive online article “Caught between two cultures: One in five Latina teens seriously considers suicide,” by Maria-Elena Ochoa, MBA.)

For Abril, the most prevalent concern for Latinos is in the high schools. “The kids’ behavioral issues are masking depression and suicidal thoughts,” she says, “and adding to the problem is the language barrier between bicultural teens and their Spanish-speaking parents.” How do they make themselves understood? And what’s causing this rise in mental anguish among Latino teens?

“Much of it is peer pressure, being disenfranchised from society, family issues, racism, discrimination, feeling outcast,” says Clarke. “It leads to depression, anger or suicidal tendencies.”

Magellan Health Services is giving troubled teens an outlet to deal with their personal anguish through MYLIFE, or Magellan Youth Leaders Inspiring Future Empowerment. “They need respect, a voice, a chance for leadership,” says Clarke. “They need to be empowered.”

The need for Latinos to address this growing concern, particularly among teens and young adults, is gaining national attention. Last month, SAMHSA and The Advertising Council launched a national PSA campaign directed to the Hispanic/Latino community to increase awareness, change negative societal attitudes and encourage those in need to seek help. More about the Aceptar/Ignorar PSA campaign can be found at www.aceptarignorar.samhsa.gov, or in English at www.whatadifference.org.

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