Summer is in full swing, and with Independence Day already celebrated we turn our gaze to the rest of July. Ten years ago, National Minority Health Awareness Month was designated to shed light on the challenges faced by underrepresented groups in the United States. To support the efforts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and their 2018 campaign #CureStigma, we are directing our attention to various facets of Minority Mental Health Issues this month.
This week, I have the privilege of focusing on Latina women and the challenges faced by many while striving to live a life of balance. It is quite likely that numerous individuals of other cultural backgrounds will identify with some of these obstacles as mental health subjects are not limited to any one group of society. The truth is, mental illness is an equal opportunity conundrum. Emotional distress can affect anyone regardless of culture, gender, economics, education, and age.
Latina women in the U.S. have their hands full as they are bombarded with expectations to which they are encumbered either by family or by their own volition. One of the many cultural challenges faced is a centuries honored tradition known as familismo: family honor rooted in placing the family’s needs above one’s own, loyalty, and protection of immediate and extended family members. Familismo has often been misunderstood among mental health circles and has been taken to mean co-dependency even within the same culture.
In an attempt to remain politically correct, just as within various Hispanic/Latino cultures living in the U.S., there are varying levels of diversity and judgment. Recently immigrated women from Spanish-speaking countries will have differing views from women whose ancestors have lived in the U.S. since before it was colonized. Despite one’s level of acculturation and assimilation, bias within family units remains.
Consider the young Latina who puts marriage and children on hold (temporarily or indefinitely) while she decides to pursue her career. If she does not know how to roll her tortillas or her “R’s” for that matter, she will be judged harshly by the matriarchs within her community. As does the woman who has devoted her life to raising children, keeping the home, supporting her life-long partner and then continues the pattern once grandchildren hit the scene. Both can be judged harshly by the very family members they hold near and dear to their hearts, causing incredible pain because of their glances or their malentendidos or indirectas (those judgmental passive-aggressive glances or comments that often lead to hurt feelings).
Even without the added trauma of sexual abuse, domestic violence, cultural demands can be stressful and often a source of limiting beliefs that can paralyze us with anxiety or send us into a state of depression or panic. Fear can be debilitating, but it is rooted in ignorance. Once you make a decision to be culturally self-aware ask yourself, what am I afraid of? Almost always, it has its origins in something that is hard to define because it comes from a deep place within your irrational thoughts that might be traced to generations in our distant past. Therefore, knowledge is power. Once you realize that you do not know, set out to learn more about it. NAMI reports mental illnesses common among Latinos are generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism. National statistics record that suicide attempts for Hispanic girls in grades 9-12 were 50% higher than that for White girls and female suicidal ideation is twice that of boys in the same grades. Yet, White girls receive mental health treatment twice as often as Hispanic girls according to statistics gathered in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service-Office of Minority Health.
Sadly, within our beautiful cultura mental wellness and therapy fall under the categories of ignorance and fear. Many who refuse help are afraid of what they don’t know. Surprisingly, however, those who are willing to be culturally self-aware muster the courage to take a chance. More often than not, I have encountered women (and men) who came to counseling for the very first time and left asking themselves (and me), “why did I wait so long?” I’ll tell you why, because your abuelita, tía, madrina, vecina, or mamá convinced you that you were loca for wanting to talk to anyone outside of the familia and to just pray about it and everything will work out. They loved us so much that they inadvertently helped to create a stigma that getting help is wrong or unacceptable.
So what can you do?
- Become self-aware – for yourself and for our children. Be willing to admit that you can’t do this alone (none of us can!).
- Remember that what others say, think, or do is notyour responsibility. Relieve yourself from the burden of carrying the consequences of other people’s actions. What is more valuable than your mental health or that of your children?
- Forgive yourself. Free yourself from the weight of carrying any unnecessary shame or doubt and work on controlling what you can: your thoughts, your words, your actions.
- Seek help! A competent counselor can help you gain clarity.
It is crucial that you seek therapy if you find yourself stuck, whether in a state sadness, weakness, despair, or anger. Find a therapist who is culturally competent, who will offer you unconditional positive regard, and work to understand your situation. The right counselor will work WITH you to help you develop a treatment plan that places value on your individual needs.
The truth is, everyone needs help, and that is why we are here. #CureStigma