Latinx people’s relationship with mental illnesses has always been strained. For the people who live with these (un)diagnosed disorders, their sense of shame, embarrassment, or even denial is further heightened by the culture of intolerance they usually encounter within their respective Latin American culture. Before I begin, I want to address that it’s difficult for me to write about the often dangerous and hurtful stigma toward mental illness within the latinx community knowing that I don’t have any first-hand experience with it: I do not have a medically diagnosed mental illness nor does anyone in my family. Therefore, I question the validity of whether or not to speak out about this issue, then, especially because so much of the dialogue surrounding mental illness and stigma is often written by neurotypical, voyeuristic outsiders like me. Instead, what I hope to write about and bring to light with this essay is the air of demonization and denial toward mental illnesses in general that we are all exposed to as children and throughout our adolescence and adult life within our strongly Christian/Catholic, traditional, often poor or low-income and marginalized community.
The truth is this: about 20% of latins living within the US experience or live with mental health disorders. The constant desire to explain away, to the point of even denying the existence of mental illnesses, is quite common within the latinx community, but what causes and influences it? A reason may be our strong religious backgrounds and upbringings, with our families either being devout Christians or Catholics (though it is important to note that there definitely are practicing Muslim, Jewish, Santeria and other indigenous communities among us as well). Even I- a person who has never experienced any of the comments, aggression, or hostility that is often expressed toward those who live with mental illnesses- have always been acutely aware of how undesirable and inappropriate the issue of mental illnesses was within our community; I knew that feeling any emotion other than happiness was looked down upon by my parents, friends and other relatives. To say that I was struggling, feeling down or sad was immediately met with comments about how these were the workings of the devil, how I needed to look to God for strength, pray more, think about how “blessed” I was.
Furthermore, we are more inclined to look for a more “spiritual” reasoning behind a family member (or ourselves) experiencing any mental illness, such as demonic possession, being spiritually disturbed or tormented, God “testing” us, or even others doing brujeria or giving us el ojo. This mix of post-colonial, Christian-imposed rhetoric combined with our own indigenous and native traditions create a dichotomy where mental illness is either denied completely or explained away by the supernatural or occult; in both worlds, the damage is still the same: mental illnesses in our communities are invalidated and those who live with them are made to feel like they’re either being punished or targeted by a supernatural force. Many times I’ve tried to make the case for the reality behind mental illnesses, how they’re often the result of chemical imbalances, hereditary, require medication or consistent and various types of therapy, only to be met with comments about how those were “white people issues,” how “we” didn’t (read: weren’t supposed to) believe in “those kinds of things”, how as latinxs were we somehow immune to “that” kind of illness.
In this sense, we struggle to understand ourselves and each other in the face of mental illnesses: our families wonder how we could possibly be depressed or struggling when we are living “a better life,” when “things are so good here” compared to our home countries, when we have been “blessed” with the chance of the American Dream. Meanwhile, we wonder how we’re expected to thrive and be happy when our existence itself is threatened daily by talks of immigration policy and reform, local verbal or physical harassment in public and private spheres, micro aggressions in every media outlet combined with our all too common feeling of not belonging, longing for our ancestral homes and language and cultural barriers. Our parents and families come from civil war-ridden, poverty-stricken and crumbling countries only to come to the United States fragmented, separated from the only place they could call home, defenseless toward all the hate, prejudice and discrimination they will face; to them, the emotional turmoil they encounter here is better than the physical and financial turmoil they faced in their home countries. It’s difficult for them, then, to take mental illnesses seriously, especially when they place the physical and financial security this country offers them above the emotional comfort our home countries used to provide. In an effort to assimilate and prosper, mental illnesses are seen as a nuisance, a sign of weakness especially considering that as children of immigrants we have not lived through the war, poverty and neglect our parents might have suffered. More importantly, mental illness is seen as a seed of shame for a family, marking them as undesirable to socialize or associate with. Knowing that we are already marginalized, the potential to lose our place within our community is not only shameful but dangerous to our shaky self identity as immigrants and children of immigrants.
When we think about the latinx experience in America, it isn’t difficult to see how we are often predisposed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and other mental detriments. To know that mental illness could not only break up our families, but threaten our social standing and sense of community, often causes those who live with these diagnoses to deny their own symptoms and ailments, to undergo unorthodox or curandero solutions or refuse seeking treatment or take medication. Beyond the emotional, spiritual or personal beliefs toward mental illnesses in the latinx community, we also have to think about the financial reasons that can frequently cause families and individuals to either seek out (cheap or free) alternatives or to not seek help at all. Our families, and ourselves, tend to work long hours at low paying jobs, or struggle to find jobs at all due to their immigration status or educational/language setbacks; consumed by our jobs in order to support our families, both here and abroad, we are left little time for self-care, much less for issues such as mental illnesses which are categorically and historically denied, shamed and mocked within our community. Furthermore, we have to consider the accessibility of many resources that are used to treat or manage mental illnesses such as doctors, specialists, therapy, counselors and medication. The latinx population of any given city, county and state are routinely marginalized, forced into either poor inner-city section or the outskirts of cities, areas don’t usually have such specialized forms of mental health care facilities or practitioners. Those types of resources tend to be located in far away, middle to upper class, white neighborhoods which also usually correlate to exorbitant prices for their services, meaning individuals must either have excellent health care providers, or sufficient cash funds to sustain these treatments. Factoring in money, time, and travel, combined with busy work and/or school schedules, along with the little to no support received from family and friends, the surface level reasons behind the lack of intersection between latinx and mental illnesses become more pronounced and rooted in a very real and hurtful stigmatization.
As with many of the issues within the latinx community, we have to understand and address the various cultural, ancestral, political and financial systems that influence and inform the negative attitudes toward mental illness. We must recognize that, all around and on various levels, we are not encouraged or allowed to foster understanding or accepting views toward mental illnesses. That isn’t to say that these dismissive attitudes are acceptable or are mitigated by all of the social factors that cause these sentiments; they are mostly a combination of ignorance, misinformation and strong environmental systems that simply don’t leave room for more accepting views. The reality is that many members within the latinx community will never change their minds about the causes, the necessary treatment and the support that many mental illnesses require; in this sense, trying to change the minds of those around us is futile. The focus and intent is, instead, to foster these warm, accepting views ourselves through self-education about mental illnesses to create an environment and a safe space for those who often suffer in silence and in fear. In speaking out about the realities behind mental illness, validating their existence within our communities, openly supporting those who may have mental health issues, we can begin to heal and restructure our views on mental illnesses.
Mia Rodriguez is a first generation latina living in LA. She graduated from Cornell University about a year ago and has been freelancing/working as a tutor and TA/interning since. Most of her work focuses on latinx issues, identity, love/relationships, home, family and family history and memory.
Illustration by Van Hong (website).