On the last day of LULAC‘s national convention Friday, two discussions on mental health in the Latino community sounded a common theme: Seeking treatment is imperative, especially for marginalized groups like LGBTQIA Latinos.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness acknowledges that as a community, Latinos are less likely to seek mental health treatment than the majority of the population. A 2001 U.S. Surgeon General’s report found that only 20% of Latinos with symptoms of a psychological disorder talk to a doctor about their concerns. Only 10% contact a mental health specialist. Yet, without treatment, certain mental health conditions can worsen and become disabling, and may even lead to death.

Disparities in access to care and treatment for mental illness for Latinos has been linked to historical discrimination as well as family culture. For LGBTQIA Latinos, an additional layer of stigma surrounding identity and acceptance impacts their willingness to seek treatment for health concerns.

Yvonne Venegas Garcia is the director of the HIV division with University Health System and spoke on a panel about the mental health of Latinos. A licensed clinical social worker, Garcia works with people with HIV and AIDS and said that in Bexar County, the population most affected by HIV/AIDS are Latino men ages  20-29, a statistic she describes as “very disturbing.”

Garcia told the audience that addressing the stigma that surrounds mental health in the Latino community is imperative in order for vulnerable, marginalized people to feel confident to seek treatment.

“Whether its HIV or mental illness we don’t talk about it,” she said. “We allude [that there] may being issues – depression, addiction, suicide – [but] people don’t want to speak about it. We need to make it to where it is more comfortable.”

Garcia said that if Latinos continue to perpetuate a culture that does not support open dialogue about physical and emotional emotional health it will remain difficult for individuals to address their problems, cope with them, and build resilience.

“The way we think affects the way we feel, which affects the way that we act,” Garcia said.

Dr. Roberto Jimenez, a psychiatrist on the panel, agreed. He said that Latinos “tend to be very conservative about things like HIV, mental health, and the stigma associated around that.”

When Jimenez asked the audience if any of them have ever experienced panic or anxiety, more than half of the audience – about 17 people – raised their hands.

He highlighted the importance of veering away from separating physical and mental health and treating them as separate issues.

“Counseling is now a part of overall [medical] treatment because emotional problems [are often] associated with chronic medical conditions, including anxiety, depression, anger, and self-esteem issues,” and vice versa, he said.

The importance of self-care and addressing mental and physical health issues in order to overcome them was echoed during a panel called “Woke Wellness” presented by the LULAC Collegiate and Young Adult Track. Mabel Diaz, a community outreach specialist with Planned Parenthood, explained to the audience that “woke wellness” means reaching out to your community when you need help. In her case and that of the other panelists, that includes the LGBTQIA community.

Diaz said that her family culture impacted her ideas toward health care and influenced her desire to work in public health as a career. For her, self-care is seen as a central tenet for community growth.

Diaz told the audience of Latino youth activists that since people look to organizers and activists for guidance, it is important to model behavior and take care of one’s physical and emotional health, set boundaries, and be willing to be vulnerable.

Francisco Ruiz works in HIV prevention for Latino gay men for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He describes his role with the CDC as “translating science into more common words” to help with community education about HIV/AIDS prevention.

Working on your “sense of self” is something that Ruiz said is necessary for progress within the Latino community, because being willing to learn, and being emotionally open “helps to fuel your growth as a leader.”

“As a Latino gay man in the government, it hasn’t been easy,” Ruiz said.

The CDC reports that Latino high school males are just as likely to report suicidal thinking as non-Latino whites, but more likely to attempt suicide. Latino high school females are more likely to report suicidal thinking than non-Latino white females, and more like to attempt suicide as well.

The American Psychiatric Association noted that just 6% of Hispanics with depression received care compared to 60% of whites.

Seventeen percent of the population – approximately 55 million people – identify themselves as Hispanic, up from 35.3 million people just 15 years earlier, according to the Census Bureau. By 2060, the number of Hispanics in the United States is projected to grow to 129 million, or 31% of the population.

Growing up, Diaz’s father often worked contract positions where no insurance was offered; her mother, who is Spanish-speaking, was afraid to go the doctor because of both language and social-cultural barriers.

After Diaz’s mom felt sick for months, she finally went to the doctor, who found several tumors. She ended up needing a hysterectomy and treatment for stage 4 cancer.

“Women should be going to the doctor,” Diaz said. “One thing that I [see] as a common pattern [is] women saying they hadn’t ever been to the doctor outside of their pregnancies.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.