In Latino communities, cultural stigmas around mental health and structural barriers to therapy have long prevented many from seeking and obtaining necessary care. However, as younger generations break stigmas and more Latino professionals enter therapeutic and wellness industries, we are seeing a gradual and positive shift in mental health care among the population."
In the US, Latinos are experiencing a growing mental health crisis. According to Mental Health America (MHA), about 8.9 million Latinos living in the country have a diagnosable mental illness. However, data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) show that just 10% of Latinos who have symptoms of a mental health disorder actually seek specialized treatment. The reasons for the disparity are numerous, including several cultural myths and stigmas as well as systemic and financial barriers.
While Latinos are far from a monolith, encompassing people of multiple races, languages, regional origins and traditions, there are some aspects of the ethnicity that cross through generations and cultures. Among them are misconceptions and even shame surrounding mental health and therapy. In Latino homes, it’s not uncommon to hear an idiom in Spanish, English or Portuguese warning relatives about airing dirty laundry.
Therapy, it has long been believed and taught, is exclusively a luxury afforded by well-off Americans/Europeans or a necessity only for the safety of individuals living with severe psychiatric illnesses that produce psychotic symptoms. Anyone, then, who seeks professional mental health care could bring shame to their families by signaling to the world that they are unwell and/or are doubting their faith.
These erroneous ideas around mental health and mental illness discourage many in the community from vocalizing their internal conflicts and obtaining the clinical help they might need. These mistaken ideas are especially detrimental when in fact support for one’s mental health struggles could lead to clearer self-awareness and greater feelings of overall well-being.
“What the stigma does is it shapes us and turns us inward in a way where we are literally unable to express ourselves. Or, when we have a thought, we shut it off because it's not supposed to be there. Instead, we’re supposed to be able to overcome it and be resilient in our own behaviors and thoughts. We’re supposed to be in control,” Adriana Alejandre, a trauma therapist and speaker, tells Chopra Global.
These stigmas and myths, she says, lead to feelings of personal invalidation, which can be reinforced by relatives or members of the community when someone feels brave enough to express themselves.
To help combat these dangerous misconceptions, in 2018, Alejandre created Latinx Therapy, a podcast providing myth-busting education to Spanish and English speaking Latinos, as well as a directory of bilingual therapists throughout the country—a comprehensive network for Latino mental health providers. For the past two years, the digital platform has sparked dialogue and shared resources to help shatter stigmas, given a 101 on mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and confronted problematic cultural forms of discipline like la chancla, a flip flop often used to discipline, and toxic masculinity, like machismo.
She’s not alone in her advocacy. Over the past five years, Latino activists and celebrities have used their platforms to talk openly about mental health, including people like Brandie Carlos, who started a platform that helps Latinos understand the process of finding mental health resources and therapists through Therapy for Latinx, Dior Vargas, whose People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project offers representation that aims to end stigma, and reggaeton megastar J Balvin, who has openly discussed his mental health journey and has recently teamed up with Deepak Chopra for the 21-day meditation experience “Renew Yourself: Body, Mind & Spirit,” among many other advocates. Additionally, Latino licensed clinicians use social media to provide users with wellness resources and tools.
Together, the work of these mental health influencers is monumental. Not only are more people, particularly youth, challenging cultural resistance to therapy, but Alejandre says this advocacy has helped create change beyond digital spaces as well. She notes that more Latinos, including Spanish-speaking elders, are beginning to seek professional help and that more members of the community are entering the mental health field. While the work is far from over, this gradual shift has made Alejandre hopeful that future generations of Latinos might not have to experience the mental health shame their elders endured.
The destigmatization of mental health among Latinos is especially important as the community experiences growing rates of stress, anxiety and depression during the current political climate. According to an American Journal of Public Health study, the spike in immigration arrests and family separations have led to a worsening of mental health within Latino communities. Another report from NPR found that the escalation of anti-migrant rhetoric and anti-Latino attacks have directly impacted youth, with Latino children exhibiting higher rates of depression than their non-Latino white peers.
According to clinical psychologist Mariel Buquè, Ph.D, these forms of discrimination and violence, whether directly experienced, or seen in the media or in one’s neighborhood, leads to communal trauma. “It’s really important for us to take into consideration that there is a high chance that a lot of what is happening to us as a community at large is the breeding ground for collective trauma and communal trauma,” Buquè tells Chopra Global. “As a result, a lot of us will experience full-blown mental health breakdowns, even if it’s short-lived -- a day or two where you can’t engage with the world -- or months where you lose the capacity to function well in your studies or work.”
As a clinician, Buquè addresses therapy through a racial justice framework, delivering racial healing workshops and leading mental health and anti-racism discussions across the nation. This holistic approach, she says, considers the individual’s full, lived experience. For instance, an Afro-Latino patient could simultaneously be traumatized by racialized police violence, as well as anti-Black sentiments at home by non-Black Latino relatives.
“Therapeutic frameworks that involve racial justice, social justice and restorative justice take into account all the things that cause debilitation, worry, anxiety and distress in someone’s life, including the family ruptures and racial relations within the Latino community as well as the society at large. It looks for ways this person can actually be empowered to elicit a sense of freedom from the pain on all levels,” Buquè explains.
Implementing a racial justice approach also allows therapists like Buquè and Alejandre to identify the systemic barriers that Latinos (and other people of color) experience when seeking professional mental health care.
In addition to financial burdens for Spanish and Portuguese speaking Latinos, there are also language hurdles that temper the quality of care members of the community receive. According to the American Psychological Association, only 5.5% of psychologists in the US are qualified to give care in Spanish. Even more, while some therapists do use interpreters, Buquè warns that this often makes sessions impersonal to Latino patients, who are generally more comfortable opening up when they feel connected to the clinician.
Outside of language, Buquè and Alejandre agree that one of the biggest hurdles that Latinos encounter when obtaining mental health services is a lack of cultural competency from professionals, which they say could lead to patients over-explaining themselves because they’re not understood and therapists misdiagnosing and overpathologizing their experiences. For instance, Alejandre notes a case where a Latino patient who practiced cultural and religious customs that include speaking with spirits -- which isn’t uncommon among Latinos of Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous backgrounds -- being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.
“Therapy was birthed out of a very Eurocentric non-person of color framework, which means there’s a huge segment of the population, including Latinos, who have a specific set of experiences that don’t fit within that framework,” Buquè says. “This therapeutic approach can’t be applied to everyone, and it really wasn’t meant to apply to everyone.”
As such, Buquè explains, therapists often also miss the mark in being able to create affirming spaces for Latino clients, who sometimes feel disconnected and disregarded when the posters on the wall and items in the room aren’t familiar to them, linguistically or culturally.
“A big part of microaggression work is helping us understand the underlying subtle and unwelcoming nature of racial transactions, and this is one of them,” she adds.
While Buquè and Alejandre urge Latinos to seek professional mental health care, and are creating welcoming and affirming therapeutic spaces for the population, they also stress the importance of Latinos coupling this care with community-based wellness practices rooted in tradition. This includes healing circles, group breathing exercises, confiding in friends and relatives about their troubles, and getting informed together about protocols and matters that directly impact them in this country.
Communal trauma means we need communal healing.”
“Communal trauma means we need communal healing,” Buquè says. Indeed, shifting the paradigm for therapy, and therapeutic care, for the Latino community is crucial to building their strengths. As individuals, and as a group, there is such vast and vital work being contributed to all facets of life: the arts, politics, education, the culinary world, and the list goes on and on. With real healing, real mental health support, members of the Latino community will flourish and live out their lives with greater calm and the power of their unfettered intentions.
Our 21 Day Meditation Experience program, Renew Yourself: Mind, Body & Spirit with Deepak Chopra and international music icon, J Balvin is taking place now through August 30. Listen for free! You can also download our app onto your phone and meditate from anywhere.