The Path Forward: Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Latino Community


Many Hispanics-Latinos view mental illness as a sign of weakness. Shying away from addressing mental illness for fear of being labeled “loco,” Spanish for “crazy,” only makes matters worse.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in recognition of that observance, it was the subject of this month’s Latinx Talks (LT).

Hugo Balta, Publisher of Illinois Latino News (ILLN) and moderator for LT, led a panel discussion on the stigma associated with mental illness within the Hispanic-Latino culture.

Hispanic-Latino adolescents’ mental health and academic performance declined during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents’ job loss forced many teenagers’ to take over childcare responsibilities for their younger siblings and for others to get a job to help make ends meet.

Pamela Fullerton, a bilingual and bicultural Latina Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and professor at Northeastern University, believes most schools do not have the resources to support students adequately.

“Schools, WAKE UP!” Fullerton said. “I was working for a school that had two social workers for the entire school. How are we going to serve our students with that lack of mental help support? We’re not.”

Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the United States, and the number of Hispanics-Latinos who speak Spanish at home has grown from 24.6 million in 2000 to 39.1 million in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, between 2014 and 2019, the proportion of facilities offering mental health treatment in Spanish declined by nearly 18 percent, according to a study published last week in the journal Psychiatric Services.

Language is a clear barrier to seeking and delivering appropriate treatment among Hispanic-Latino. Language proficiency is especially important in psychiatric care because the determination of psychiatric diagnoses significantly depends on verbal communication between patients and professionals. 

“Hospitals are required to provide an interpreter for their patients,” said Laura Martinez, Mental Health Equity & Inclusion Director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The Joint Commission, the primary accrediting organization of U.S. hospitals, requires institutions to have a language services policy in place. “They also have to have signage throughout the hospital in the top five languages in their area.”

Omar Corro, Senior Director of Operations with Rincon Family Services, says language alone isn’t enough to serve the needs of the Hispanic-Latino community best. “Having that cultural humility is very important as well,” Corro said.

Hispanics-Latinos are not a monolith. With a seemingly endless range of subgroups and individual variations, culture is important because it bears upon what all people bring to the clinical setting. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General finds It can account for minor variations in how people communicate their symptoms and which ones they report.

As Chicago, like many cities across the country, continue to crawl from the grip of COVID-19, much of the funding that was available at the height of the pandemic has decreased. Grassroots organizations, like Illinois Unidos, which have been on the frontline in helping Hispanics-Latinos through the crisis, fear that the communities who need the most help won’t get the resources they need.

“If they’re getting money, we want to see transparency,” said Dr. Pamela Vergara-Rodriguez, a triple boarded certified physician in psychiatry in the Cook County Health System, says transparency is paramount. “Where is that money going, and who is it serving?” Vergara-Rodriguez said that coalitions need to demand that local and state governments provide data and transparency in allocating resources to the public.

Latinx Talks is a monthly program produced by Imagen Marketing Consultants. The new Latino speakers series aims to bring to the forefront the inequities facing the Hispanic-Latino community.

Cover Photo: Illinois Department of Central Management Services

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