For many Latinos, having a mental illness is a sign of weakness. Or it’s a personal issue to be kept quiet.
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Latinos in the United States have mental health disorders at the same prevalence as the general population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Twenty-eight percent of Puerto Ricans living in the United States had symptoms of depression. So did 13 percent of Mexican-Americans and 10 percent of Cuban-Americans living in the United States.
However, only 20 percent of Latinos with a mental disorder talk about it with a primary care physician, says a U.S. Surgeon General report. And only 10 percent seek help from a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.
“Mental health issues have a stigma in the Latino community,” says psychiatrist Diana Lorenzo, MD. “Many Latinos would prefer to ignore these conditions rather than talk about them openly.”
When it’s time to get help
Dr. Lorenzo, who is originally from Argentina, sees Spanish-speaking patients at Cleveland Clinic’s Hispanic Clinic and encourages Latinos everywhere to get mental health care when they need it.
Mental illness encompasses a variety of disorders that affect your behavior, thinking or mood. Signs and symptoms of a possible mental health disorder include:
- Thinking problems, including difficulty concentrating or remembering
- Illogical thinking
- Unusual behavior, including changes in sleep, eating and personal care
- Loss of interest in activities
- Withdrawing from social situations
- Decrease in performance at school or work
- Increased nervousness or sensitivity
- Extreme moodiness
“If one or more of these symptoms is making it difficult for you to perform at work, at school or during social activities, you should see a doctor,” Dr. Lorenzo says.
There’s no shame in making the smart decision to take care of your mental health, she says. And the better people understand mental health issues, the easier it will be.
What Latinos (and everyone) should know about mental health
Lack of information and misunderstanding fuel Latinos’ stigma about mental health, Dr. Lorenzo says. To help minimize it, she says everyone should know these three things:
- Mental illness doesn’t mean a “sick mind.” Mental health disorders aren’t a curse or an unexplained disturbance. Often they are linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Sometimes they are due to a brain injury or even an infection that affected the brain.“Explaining the biological root of mental health disorders is enlightening to many Latinos,” Dr. Lorenzo says. “So is educating them about a particular condition and its treatment options. When they understand more about a diagnosis, they view the disease differently.”
- Disorders can be treated and even cured — often without medication. Most common mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, can be cured with psychotherapy alone. Some patients may need very few visits, depending on how severe their condition.Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other uncommon illnesses typically require long-term treatment. But psychotherapy can help them too. “If appropriate, I recommend patients try that first, then add medication later if needed,” Dr. Lorenzo says.
- Support from family and friends is vital. Latinos have strong family and social networks, Dr. Lorenzo says. Family and friends should support those struggling with mental health conditions.“Do not judge them,” she says. “Judging instead of supporting can make the condition worse. Too many times suicide is a consequence of lack of support.”
Dr. Lorenzo encourages her patients to bring their parent, spouse or child to appointments. Including family members helps them better understand the disease and support the patient.
Do your part
Helping Latinos overcome their community’s stigma about mental illness isn’t easy. But the more everyone understands mental health disorders, the better.
If someone shares a potential mental health struggle with you, encourage them to talk to their primary care physician or a mental health professional. Support them in opening up. And commend their bravery.
“Mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness or losing control,” Dr. Lorenzo says. “It is a medical condition that can be — and should be — treated.”