BY EMILY DJOHAN
Culture is a part of everyone’s daily life, in fact, it impacts every aspect of daily life. Some of these aspects are a bit more obvious, such as the holidays and traditions that one celebrates. However, some of these impacts are lasting and often overlooked. One of these overlooked impacts is mental health.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage month here in the United States, I, a non-Hispanic individual, decided to look into the relationship between mental health and the Hispanic community. The Hispanic population is the largest it has ever been. In 2019 it reached the highest record thus far of 60.6 million people. Between 2010 to 2019, the Hispanic community has gone from being 16% of the overall population to 18% percent of the overall population, proving that the Hispanic community is a significant part of the ongoing American story (Pew Research).
The first step I took to educate myself was to do research about how Hispanic culture impacts the mental health of its members. Towards the beginning of my investigative research, I found one clear thing: there is not enough available research about this topic. It’s true that a substantial amount of research has been conducted. However, most of these studies are behind paywalls; ultimately creating a situation where the majority of the public doesn’t have access to this crucial information. How are people supposed to care for other cultures without the opportunity to research it themselves?
Luckily, there are several organizations dedicated to open source research and to mental health advocates that share this information freely. Hispanic communities statistically have a similar vulnerability to the white population in the United States. However, about 33% of Hispanic or Latinx adults with mental illness get the help they look for (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) When compared to the national average, which is 43%, there is a stress that this is an issue that needs to be investigated. From 2015 to 2018 every single age group in the Hispanic community saw an increase in major depressive episodes; in fact, the youngest age group (ages 12-17) saw an increase from 12.6 percent to 15.1 percent (Mental Health of America). Furthermore, suicidal thoughts and attempts are rising at a similar rate to the amount of depressive episodes that the Hispanic community is facing. The evidence clearly points out there is an issue. Now we need to identify the cause as to why the Hispanic community isn’t experiencing the help they deserve.
There are several factors that influence the lack of access to care that the Latino/Hispanic community faces. There are factors such as language barriers and socioeconomic status. For example, many members of the Hispanic communities don’t approach the right resources for help. 20% of Latinos with a mental disorder talk about it with a general care provider, but only 10% actually end up going through with treatment with a proper mental health professional (A Supplement of Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General). However, the Hispanic culture has a heavy hand in how many members of the Hispanic community deal with mental health.
Many members of the Hispanic community tend to be private and use the phrase “la ropa sucia se lava en casa” (a phrase of similar meaning to “don’t air your dirty laundry in public”) to reason as to why one shouldn’t talk about mental health issues (National Alliance on Mental Health). Furthermore, another concept that is important in Hispanic communities is machismo and marianismo. These concepts are based around traditional gender roles; a boy should be traditionally manly and a girl should take care of the family. Both of these roles require the participant to not show any signs of “weakness”, and the Hispanic communities believe that mental illness is a sign of weakness (US National Library of National Institutes for Help). Machismo and marianismo is shown to have a negative impact on the mental healths of the individuals expected to follow it. Even if mental illness isn’t considered a sign of weakness, mental illness is also associated with being crazy and is a source of shame for members of the Hispanic community (National Alliance on Mental Health). Additionally, certain faiths aren’t necessarily supportive of mental illness and aren’t equipped to help its members (National Alliance on Mental Health). Some religions contribute to the stigma of mental illness as the impact of demons, lack of faith and sinful behavior (Mental Health America). This is significant to the Hispanic community because a survey in 2012 found that 83% of Hispanics identify with a religious affiliation (Pews Research).
Numbers feel more genuine when these numbers are paired with the stories of the groups living the truth of these numbers. I wanted to hear a member of the community tell me their experiences, their perspective and most importantly their truth. I’m grateful that a member of the community agreed to meet with me and tell me about their experiences. It is important to understand that mental health is an incredibly sensitive topic. Consider the results of the previously stated research and it becomes clear that is a taboo topic. As a result, the member of the community who agreed to undergo the interview decided to remain anonymous.
Question: What culture do you identify with?
Answer: I identify as Mexican.
Question: How have you viewed yourself and your mental health in the past?
Answer: I didn’t really want to believe in mental health. Lately, about a year ago I started having problems with my mental health. I feel like in the present, people need more mental health awareness than ever.
Question: Have you always had that type of relationship with yourself?
Answer: In the past, I didn’t believe in mental health. So I didn’t know why. Two years ago I started to open myself up more; I realized how serious mental health is and the importance of changing the mindset in it, especially in my culture.
Question: How in touch are you with your culture?
Answer: It's best described as “50-50”. When I first came to the states I didn’t really know any English so I tried to integrate myself into this culture. I learned English and the activities people enjoyed doing here; in the process I forgot how to speak my language, my original language. However, 5-6 years ago I learned how to speak my language again, I started to celebrate the traditions that we used to celebrate. I was really white-washed before but now I want to experience other cultures: especially my own.
Question: What role does culture play in your daily life?
Answer: Family, my culture is centered around family. We are responsible for each other, every day I take care of my sister, I take care of my brother. We all try to provide for each other, so we can all be safe and happy: especially during this time.
Question: How has your family’s personal beliefs impact your mental health?
Answer: The reason why I didn’t believe in mental health was because my family didn’t believe in it either. They believe that you should “man” up to your problems. However, we sat down and spoke about it; they opened their eyes and now they realize the importance of mental health and access to help.
Question: How do you think your larger culture impacts your mental health?
Answer: My Hispanic culture looks down on mental health. They say that if you have struggles with your mental health you’re weak. Many people want you to show a persona, we call it “machismo”, they want you to be really manly about how you act and deal with your personal struggles. This is incredibly toxic in the Hispanic culture; especially with men. If you show any sign of weakness people will make fun of you and won’t take you seriously. This is a situation we need to change, especially during quarantine, everyone needs to take care of their mental health. Families and parents should learn how to become supportive of their children’s mental health.
Question: What assumptions do you think strangers make about your culture?
Answer: I feel that especially now people don’t want to interact with us, we are Hispanic, we are Mexicans. Sometimes I meet strangers and we just talk, sometimes I meet strangers and they make insensitive jokes and I laugh but I don’t care. People need to stop saying these comments. Another thing I really hate is when people say “every Hispanic is Mexican”, not every Hispanic is Mexican. My dad is El Salvadorian, so everyone says that he is Mexican and that's not right to say that. People are proud of where they came from.
Question: How do those assumptions impact you and your mental health?
Answer: Those insensitive jokes messed me up. However, now these jokes don’t affect me anymore. From a kid all the way to middle school, people made those jokes and I just got used to it. When people question me as to why I don’t get mad anymore, I just reply that this is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life. It doesn’t faze me anymore. But nevertheless you should not make those insensitive remarks.
Question: What do you think about the stigma surrounding mental health in your culture?
Answer: I think the stigma needs to change. It is seriously impacting people, even I had a conversation with my best friend who is also Mexican, and the reason why he doesn’t want to deal with therapy or anything is because the culture taught him that it is a sign of weakness. So what he said to me is that you need to do other things, like he works out. Nevertheless he still needs to talk about it. One day he said to me “I’m going to break and that's it” but I told him he shouldn’t do that. I told him “you should go seek help and it is the best option”.
Question: How do you view mental health in the present?
Answer: I feel that it's really important especially because of COVID. Everybody is inside, no one is outside and communication is completely different. Some people aren’t even getting chances to communicate. People need to check on other people, see how they are doing and ultimately show that someone cares about them. Some people may think that no one cares about them if no one is texting them or talking to them.
Question: What is your advice for people struggling with mental health in your culture?
Answer: If you have a sibling or sister, talk to them, they can help you. Especially your parents, if you feel comfortable doing so. I talked to my mom and she finally understood me. Your parents will understand you, they love you unconditionally so they will try to understand you. If you can’t try to find a friend or mentor that can help you with it. When I was too scared to talk to my parents I spoke to a mentor, they helped me through it and she got me the help I need. Talk to a mentor or anybody you are comfortable with.
Question: What is your advice for anybody struggling with mental health?
Answer: At this moment you’re probably thinking this is the worst moment of your whole life. Trust me, there is happiness at the end of the tunnel. There is more. Keep fighting, I’ve felt like that before. But if you keep fighting, you’ll see brighter days and better times.
Through my own research and the kindness of the member of this community that gave me an opportunity to understand their experiences; I was able to witness a small glimpse of the complex world of the Hispanic culture’s impact on mental health. It is best described as an eye-opening experience that will forever change the way I view the relationship of culture and in communities different from mine. I encourage you to use any resource possible to try to understand other people and the differences between us. It can be an incredibly eye-opening and rewarding adventure.