As a caretaker and advocate for my mom, I’m constantly reminded how much of what we have experienced, in dealing with my mom’s serious mental illness (SMI) and the mental health system, is reflective of the Latino/a experience. From problems with acquiring basic access to MH services, to trying to achieve adequate treatment and support, to the unresponsiveness on the part of MH professionals, to navigating cultural barriers in my family/community, all have been unnecessarily daunting. In our case, they have proven to be impossible to surmount in getting my mother adequate treatment.
Percentage wise, Latinos/as currently make up around 18% of the U.S. population. Around 16% of Latinos/as have experienced a mental illness in the last year, compared to 20% of whites, 16% of blacks and 13% of Asians.
In respect to Latino/a subgroups, young Latinos/as have higher rates of attempted suicide compared to whites. For males, it was 6.9% compared to 4.6%, respectively. For females, it was 13.5% compared to 7.9%. Among U.S. born Latinos/as, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans experience higher rates of mental illness than Cubans and other Latinos/as.
The rates may very well be higher, however, given the multiple barriers preventing Latinos/as from acknowledging they have a MI and receiving adequate treatment. In the case of my mother, it took years to get her an official diagnosis. (In the case of my father, the PTSD he developed from the Vietnam War wasn’t officially diagnosed until recently, after he retired.)
Regardless of race/ethnicity, denial is a common response towards MI. This was very much the case with my mom and family. In hindsight, it was clear there were times when my mom was harboring extreme delusions and experiencing bouts of mania. At crisis times, the situation would swing between heated arguments with her to just avoidance. We viewed her “locura” (“craziness”) as just part of her personality.
More specific to Latino/a families than denial is pride. We don’t like others to see our weaknesses. We don’t want to admit we even have any. For most of us, not being many, if any, generations removed from working class or impoverished backgrounds instills in us a deep-seated perseverance; an attitude encapsulated by the slogan “¡si se puede!”
In the case of my Mexican-American family, my parents grew up poor, working in the fields of the California’s Central Valley. As my dad describes in a story he likes to tell: “Teachers would ask us when school started in fall what we did over the summer. The white kids would say they went to Disneyland. I would say, ‘I worked.’”
Our pride certainly led us to downplay any problems with my mom. Our family was “successful.” Together, my parents made enough income to be considered “middle class.” Latino/a families are also very private. We don’t like to “air our dirty laundry.” Problems
are settled within the family. This extended to family gatherings. At times during these events, I would take it upon myself to try and help my mom socially navigate, in the hope of concealing any petulant and irrational behavior.
Attending extended family functions with her began to occur less frequently, however, as my mom’s mental health abruptly deteriorated. She’d begin accusing the family of working for the F.B.I to spy on her. She’d begin accusing my dad of trying to kill her by putting poisons in her food and drink. She’d wake up in the middle of the night and insist she heard people trying to get inside the house in order to kill her. Suggesting she see a psychiatrist just made my mom angry and hostile, and everyone more miserable.
About 3-4 years into this, into my mom exhibiting a SMI, I began to take a more direct role in trying to get help and treatment for her. By then, my parents were divorced, but still living together. My mom was unemployed and uninsured, and her psychosis was a constant. She had nowhere else to really go and my dad was reluctant to kick his high-school sweetheart out of his house. I rolled up my sleeves one summer and went to work.
Lack of health insurance was a significant barrier for us when I first tried to get her help. Indeed, it’s a problem experienced by too many Latinos/as. Until recently, 30% of Latinos/as lacked health insurance, compared to 11% of whites. That percentage has been significantly reduced, fortunately, due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
In 2008, however, George Bush Jr. was still president and my mom didn’t have an official diagnosis, essentially proof of a disability, we could use to apply for Medicaid.
I had little choice but to move my mom in with me in San Francisco. SF was in its early years of providing health care services to indigent, uninsured residents. I enrolled my mom and we began accessing community medical and mental health services.
Fast forward nine years later. Despite my best efforts, my mom still remains untreated. In that time, my mom has been released from hospitals against my wishes, homeless, and has developed various serious medical issues. Accessing MH outpatient services, whether community centers or county services, has proven to be entirely fruitless. Why see a psychiatrist, let alone take psychiatric meds, if you don’t believe you’re ill and believe the medicine is poison? I should mention, they won’t even see a person, unless the person makes the appointment themselves!
There are gross inadequacies and structural problems in our MH system. Nothing makes this more plainly obvious, perhaps, than the fact that our country’s largest MH treatment centers are prisons and jails. At a minimum, to address this, laws that prevent people like my mom from being effectively treated need to be amended, or ended, and the lack of psychiatric beds should be viewed for what it is, a national crisis!
More and better family education and outreach are essential too, in order to mitigate the cultural barriers that play a part in impeding Latino/a families from realizing and accepting they need help (The video above is a good example of what that looks like.). Truly universal healthcare is also a must. The last thing a family that is going through a MH crisis needs is more stress caused from excessive hospital/medical bills. Training and employing more culturally responsive and competent MH staff and psychiatrists, and expanding community MH centers/clinics, are also very important. The Latino/a mental health center we utilized in SF was a blessing in helping us finally get an official diagnosis for my mom.
I’ll advocate for these things for the rest of my life cause my mom, my family and community deserve respect and a decent quality of life.
 Rates of mental illness are from 2014 data provided by SAMSA.
 From a CDC 2016 report: https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=24
 From a 2008 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07040704