Mental health issues. Everybody has them, at least sometimes. And these days, between the pandemic and the current climate of fear fueled by a government showing great hostility toward immigrants, people of color, or anyone else who doesn’t agree with it, those most affected by these concerns are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and depression.
A new UnidosUS fact sheet shows that in 2018, an estimated 8.6 million Latinx adults had a mental and/or substance use disorder, suggesting a lot is at stake for their mental health in current battles in Congress and the Supreme Court over the fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Some lawmakers have been seeking to dismantle the ACA since it was enacted in 2010 during the Obama Administration.
“The Affordable Care Act (ACA) remains a critical pathway to coverage for Latinos and remains in effect until a ruling is delivered,” the fact sheet says, noting that requirements for health plans to cover essential health benefits, including mental health and substance use disorders services, could end.
“Our worries affect our mental health and well-being. With everything that’s going on the country today, Latinx youth have plenty of reasons to be stressed out,” Congresswoman Nannette Diaz Barragan, a representative for California’s 44th District, said in opening remarks for a Spanish-language mental health roundtable sponsored online by UnidosUS on August 11.
The roundtable was part of UnidosUS Health Working Group to advance a 2020 Latinx Empowerment Campaign “¡Adelante!: Moving Us Forward—a political empowerment effort that aims to focus on Latinx contributions to the nation, highlight policies and actions that were obstructing those contributions, spotlight issues for Latinx voters like job quality, housing affordability, and health care access, while elevating the community’s collective values.
The Spanish language roundtable, La Salud Mental de Nuestrx Jóvenes: Una Conversación Abierta (Our Youth’s Mental Health: An Open Conversation) was moderated by Dr. Ingrid Colón, UnidosUS Education Research Program Manager, and focused on everything from access and resources for mental health in the school system, to exploring cultural attitudes and traditions, and confronting the racism and inequality that leads to greater stress for communities of color through civic engagement. It featured a group of Latinx mental health leaders with years of experience addressing all of the above. Those included Karla Payes, a psychiatric social worker serving the Los Angeles Unified School District; Omar Ornelas, director of program application for Teach for America; and Héctor Sánchez-Flores, executive director of the Latinx male-focused support group The National Compadres Network.
“We were very excited to host this roundtable in Spanish for the Latinx community because we know the need to engage in these discussions in languages other than English. Most of the virtual events you see right now are only offered in English,” Dr. Colón told ProgressReport.co following the event.
Access to Mental Health
Lacking resources and access to mental health services in low-income communities, especially those of color, isn’t exactly a new topic, noted Payes.
“It’s lasted for generations but like just about everything, it reaches its limit. We’re seeing it in anger, in the protests,” she said, and adding that while increasing numbers of young people are more able to recognize their need for mental supports, there is still a glaring lack of resources in the communities most affected by racism and poverty.
Payes says her school district is one of dozens across the country that would benefit from more everyday therapists, as well as greater opportunities to address deeper psychiatric concerns among students. She also says there is growing recognition that law enforcement needs to be trained to deal with mental health. There are plenty of highly-trained professionals able to do all of the above, but there’s a catch:
“We have lots of people who can help but we don’t have the resources to hire them,” she explained.
Given that reality, Ornelas said it’s important that the adults in young people’s lives stay open and vigilant to see how they can show support.
“We also want young people to make connections with groups like UnidosUS and other more local organizations because we know they’ve been working on this for a long time and they have all the history and the wisdom of those who came before,” added Ornelas.
That’s a concept the National Compadres Network has been emphasizing since its inception in 1988, noted Sánchez-Flores. In fact, he says, everything is based in the concept of la cultura cura, that one’s culture holds many of the keys to healing.
“La cultura cura is our focus that sometimes we forget. We forget that we have it in our histories and our customs,” said Sánchez-Flores. “And yes, sometimes we have traits we should dismantle. I don’t look at (culture) as perfect, but with all we’re facing, there are a lots of healthy things we can draw from and focus on.”
He went on to note the importance of emphasizing not just on the challenges faced by Latinx families but on the instances where families have overcome those challenges. In so doing, the community is reminded that there are positive role models and examples in its midst from which to draw wisdom and inspiration.
Sánchez-Flores also noted that there’s a stereotype that Latinos don’t want to seek mental health services, that they don’t recognize the value of them. But he says he and his wife, also a mental health professional, have found that’s not accurate.
“What we don’t want is a service that doesn’t recognize our customs, our perspectives, and the goals we have for our families and our children,” he said.
Calls to Action
Finally, panelists noted that getting the word out and ensuring services are provided in a culturally responsive manner can only happen when members of a community get engaged in outreach and advocacy. They said that should include filling out the census and voting in all elections, not just to benefit oneself, but also for the good of all those who don’t have that right.
And even students who can’t do those things can and should raise their voices, noted Ornelas.
“There’s nothing as strong as the voices of young people. When they speak, adults listen. They want to listen because that doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “I want young people to know that their voices are important, and they can be the change they’re seeking in their schools, in their districts, in their homes, and in their communities.”
The roundtable ended with three calls to action to raise Latinx voices and make sure the community is represented:
For additional resources on mental health, visit our UnidosUS mental health page here. And, our UnidosUS ¡Adelante! Campaign to advocate for your community.