By Lynda Cortés-Avellaneda, Program Manager, NAMI Multicultural Action Center
It is a sunny mid-September morning in the Washington, D.C. area. The cool air and the smell of my last stash of Colombian coffee transport me back to the Equator. If really high mountains were to pop up in the background, the street were to shrink and traffic were to suddenly jam resulting in massive honking and other anathemas, I would feel right back home in Bogota.
I breathe in. I am back in the States where Latinos like me now constitute 17 percent of the nation’s total population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:
- In 2012, we were 53 million, making people of Hispanic origin the nation's largest ethnic or racial minority.
- While we used to be concentrated in a few areas, Latinos are now the largest minority group in 21 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
- Georgia, South Dakota, Mississippi and Wisconsin experienced the fastest Latino population growth at the county level between 2000 and 2011.
- 12.9 percent of U.S. residents 5 and older speak Spanish at home. This places Spanish as the most spoken non-English language in American homes.
Beyond the all-encompassing figures and language commonality, Latinos are a highly heterogeneous group. We come from different places, we have different backgrounds and we experience migration differently. These factors are critical to understand the complex and variable impact of immigration on an individual’s present and future mental health—which is worth examining during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which continues through Oct. 15 and includes Mental Illness Awareness Week, Oct. 6-12.
The experience of the migration process is linked to major adjustment stressors. Pre-migration abuse or disasters (i.e., political persecution, economic hardship, etc.), uncertain legal status and substandard living conditions once in the United States, represent additional strikes on human beings already stressed by having left behind the world they know. For Latino generations born in this country, the story isn’t less challenging, but it is different.
I belong to the wave immigrants that fled excruciating socio-political turmoil a decade ago. Without a return date in sight, the excitement of a new beginning soon enough turned into hard work to adjust. The process of acculturation, sadly, was not cited in my passport—trust me, I checked.
Despite having a supportive family undergoing the same process with me, the implications of such a dramatic change had a mental health toll on all of us. The forced separation from a “hyper-extended” family, the challenges intrinsic to adolescence and the frustration of not being able to communicate in a different language were crushing. For a long time, anxiety and depression were professed members of my family.
Acknowledging that something was chronically unbalanced, talking about it and seeking professional help were crucial aspects to regaining and maintaining our mental health. However, we also faced a few additional challenges in the process:
- Stigma—Vulnerability to judgment was a huge burden before grasping that mental illness as any other illness had biological causes and was treatable.
- Unfamiliarity with the health care system. We had to learn about it and make sure mental health services were at least partially covered by our health insurance.
- Scarcity of bilingual and culturally competent specialists.
- Lack of access to bilingual mental health education and continuous networks of support.
Even though Latinos are a resilient and strong community, it is important to understand that mental illness affects everyone. And considering the Hispanic population numbers and projections, more people will face the challenges of living with a mental illness. Luckily, we are not alone. Organizations like NAMI are dedicated to building better lives for those affected by mental illness by offering not only bilingual but culturally competent resources, education and support.
United we can fight stigma!
As proud Latinos who care about the wellness of our community, let’s commemorate the National Hispanic Heritage Month by taking action against inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness.