Mental Health Disparities within the Latino Community
By Smeily Rodriguez
This piece examines the biological, cultural, and socioeconomic factors that limit Latinos from receiving mental health treatment. The inequity in mental health services for Latinos dealing with the challenges of acculturation in the U.S. is posing a significant roadblock in their ability to thrive.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. In the United States, over 40 million people experience a mental illness, of which about 20% are Latino. Although Latinos show similar susceptibility to mental illness as other groups, there are mental health care disparities that make this group more vulnerable to severe and persistent mental illnesses. They are also less likely to seek help and get treatment. Various socioeconomic and cultural factors contribute to the underutilization of mental health services among Latinos. The discrepancy between the prevalence and use of mental health services among Latinos highlights the importance of understanding disparities in access and quality of treatment.
As the population of Latinos in the United States continues to grow, it is important to consider the heterogeneity of the Latino population by examining differences in origin, English language proficiency, values and socioeconomic status (Kouyoumdjian et al., 2006). One important aspect in which Latino subgroups differ is acculturation—the degree to which Latinos have assimilated and adopted the attitudes, values, and behaviors of American culture (Berry, 2002). This process is particularly important because unacculturated Latino-Americans maintain closer ties to their native culture than those who are acculturated. Maintaining a strong cultural identity can make it more challenging for them to integrate the beliefs and values of American culture.
Some research suggests that the challenges and stressors new Latino immigrants face can put them at risk for developing mental health problems (Guarnaccia, 1997). When someone starts living in a new culture, they may experience internal pressures to succeed in a new country, a loss of their support system, language barriers, and socioeconomic stressors. While maintaining close ties with family and friends may lead to positive mental health outcomes, close ties with native culture and family can create dependency on others and a worsening of symptoms, as less acculturation correlates to more hesitance for seeking treatment (Hsiu-Lan Cheng, n.d.). There is a critical need for more mental health research that specifically explores heterogeneity and acculturation of the Latino population in order to improve quality of care to Latinos with mental illness.
Concerns for privacy, attitudes towards mental illness and the distrust in mental health professionals also contribute to negative mental health stigmas. The Latino community tends to be very private and many may be reluctant to share their mental health problems with people outside their family (NAMI, n.d.). Unfortunately, when family is the only source of protection and support, it can result in a person not seeking professional help or delayed treatment. In cases where they do seek help, Latinos often refer to a primary care physician. Therefore, appropriate referral to mental health specialists for treatment and adherence to treatment does not often occur. Beliefs that mental illness exposes weakness of character, that those with a mental illness are dangerous and will not recover, and the shame in needing to seek help often prevents Latinos from seeking services. In a study published in 2015, Latino participants were asked about their perceptions of the factors that influence access to mental health care. This study recognized stigma as one of the barriers and revealed factors which included negative reactions from the community and beliefs that those who seek mental health services are crazy (Dinorah Martinez Tyson, n.d.).
Lack of language proficiency also limits Latinos’ knowledge of mental health services, making it difficult for them to know where to seek help. Most importantly, language barriers limit Latinos’ ability to communicate effectively with a mental health care provider. According to a survey released by the American Psychological Association in 2016, only 5.5% of U.S. psychologists say they can administer mental health services in Spanish (Dingfelder, 2005). Research suggests that even Latinos who are fluent in English may find it easier to recount emotions and episodes from their childhood in their first language (Dingfelder, 2005). A study published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research suggests that this is because organizing and talking about experiences in one language automatically connects that specific experience to that language (Lijtmaer, 2017). Limited or no access to providers who understand cultural issues can lead to misdiagnosis. With the Latino population increasing in the U.S., it is important to ensure that Latino families receive the mental health care they need. Targeted programs should focus on closing the gap between the needs and utilization of mental health services by Latinos.
Identifying negative attitudes and beliefs can help such organizations and providers in designing interventions that reduce the stigma and improve outcomes in mental health service usage. Efforts should be made to provide mental health training to physicians so that they can better identify symptoms of mental illness in Latino patients. Although there is an increase in research that examines the barriers Latinos face when seeking mental health care, there are many more issues to be explored and improvements in services to be made.
I wrote this piece for a psychology newsletter at Hunter College, which is distributed to all students at the college. There is limited research available on the relationship between mental health services and Latinos seeking these services. There is a need for specialized forms of mental health services and treatment for the Latino community. Mental health has always been of interest to me, and this specific issue resonated with me and inspired me to research why Latinos do not seek out help from mental health professionals.
Smeily is a recent graduate from Hunter College. She currently works full time at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where she works as a research technician for the Hematological Oncologic Tissue Bank. She is currently preparing to apply to medical school in NYC. Smeily hopes to further explore the creative writing genre and develop her poetry skills. When she’s not working, she enjoys staying active reading and cooking. Smeily was born in Dominican Republic and has been living in the Bronx since she was 11.