Many Latinos feel they live in a culture that dismisses mental health issues as weakness. (Photo illustration by Rani Chor)
Glen A. Wilson High School

Minds Matter: Psychologically masked illnesses in the Latino community

“Ese barco navega sin vela.”

“That ship sails without a sail.”

Behind such a seemingly innocent phrase hides a startling implication of isolating one’s broken self from the chaotic realities in one’s own mind. Phrases like this illustrate the continuous theme of deflection and degradation concerning mental illnesses in the Latino community.

What are considered culturally normative practices such as privatizing mental health issues stems from machismo — a strong or aggressive masculine pride — a heavy reliance on faith versus therapy, a lack of knowledge about psychology and psychiatry, and a repeating pattern of hiding weakness.

Meanwhile, such beliefs create an unfortunate state of reality for the Latino community which makes up more than 80% of La Puente’s population, according to a 2018 SCAG Regional Council survey.

Latino culture is reflected in La Puente’s bright shop signs and outgoing street names, but is rarely seen in the form of a mental health clinic or community support group. And the consequences of such a perturbing lack of community support can be seen in every generation.

Jane Delgado, president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, stated in a USA Today article that she has seen immigration affect the mental health of later-generation Latino Americans, both directly and indirectly.

The fear that one’s accomplishments will never make up for the sacrifices their parents made is a pressure that many children of Latino immigrants in the United States have to face.

For some, the fear motivates them to succeed: surmounting cultural barriers to be the first in the family to attend college or become a doctor.

However, there is a burden to the “suck it up” mentality that can further isolate children of immigrants, even within their own families.

Melissa Zerquera, a sophomore at Glen A. Wilson High School, recounts the times when she was asked to answer questions during a standard medical check-up about her mental health, such as her current level of anxiety or depression.

“I have never been allowed to fill that [pamphlet] out on my own. My parents always fill it out for me,” Zerquera said. “I’ll say jokingly, ‘what if I wanted therapy?’ And they immediately shut the idea down.”

As a result, Zerquera has had to find coping mechanisms to deal with the academic rigor of her classes, coupled with bouts of anxiety.

“If I feel really anxious at home I’ll take a break and try to do something that helps me. Usually I paint to relieve my stress, or I try to watch something or listen to music to try to forget about everything for a bit,” she said.

Nevertheless, she firmly believes that more communication between parents and their children is a necessary step to social progress.

“Because of the fact that my parents never talk about [mental health], I feel like I’m lying to myself. As if I’m just imagining it but part of me knows that anxiety is a real thing. Sometimes I just feel like it’s just in my head,” Zerquera said. “Hispanic families should be there for their kids, or else the issue will only get worse.”

Maria Johnson, a Spanish teacher at Glen A. Wilson High School, was born into a Latino community in L.A. and acknowledges that much of her childhood resembled that of Zerquera’s today.

“Coming from a Hispanic background, for us, there is no such thing as having mental problems or needing therapy. There was help if you needed food and clothing, but when I was growing up, help for mental health just didn’t exist,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Latina adolescents attempt suicide more often than any other group of female teenagers nationwide, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance.

Johnson believes it is important for kids to learn from the outside pressures that hispanic communities are facing around the nation.

“I think that it is just unbelievable what is happening to families at the [U.S-Mexico Border] wall,” she said.

President Trump’s border wall is meant to deter Central American immigrants and asylum seekers from entering the country while simultaneously tearing families apart, sparking anxiety in all generations living in the latino community.

“I am glad that kids are trying to do something about the situation. They are saying that ‘I’m going to grow up and do something different then Trump because I don’t want to be that kind of person.’ All of this talk about depression, anxiety and stress: at the end of the day I just want everyone to have the same opportunity and services,” Johnson said.

On the other hand, Santiago Saucedo, a junior at Glen A. Wilson High School, said it’s common for students to avoid seeking help due to a fear of being judged or shamed.

“I’ve had mental health issues, I just don’t address them with my parents. My mom is not very understanding of mental health. She can’t believe that I have an actual mental issue that I can’t fix myself and need to take medication for,” Saucedo said. “I use self coping mechanisms, like taking long depressive naps, and having long depressive episodes. I don’t have enough money to go to therapy, so I believe mental health should be addressed as a community.”

La Puente has one publicly recognized mental health institution — Enki Youth and Family Services, a branch of EHRS, inc. — a private sector of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health which is currently open during the state-wide quarantine.

Enki employs Spanish speaking doctors at their facility and provides services for adults and seniors but excludes youth.

Roxana Fierro, an employee at Enki, recognizes that mental health is heavily stigmatized in La Puente’s largely Latino community.

Nevertheless, she believes that the work they do as a culturally sensitive mental health institution will hopefully encourage others to seek help.

“Because more people will feel like they are not alone, they [believe] that they can ask for help. People have been more open to therapy. It’s easier to clarify with spanish speaking doctors and they feel more understood,” Fierro said.

Without generalizing, it is a universal truth among many distinctive Latino communities around LA, including La Puente, that more work needs to be done in providing the mental health support necessary to normalize seeking help for mental illnesses and differences.