Take Care of Your Mental Health

Vecinos: information and advice for our American communities

Take Care of Your Mental Health

by Ellen Lee Alderton

When health threats such as AIDS, cancer, or diabetes receive so much public attention, you may not realize that mental illnesses are actually much more common than any of these other diseases. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one out of five adults in the United States will experience a mental disorder each year. Conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety can strike anyone at any time – regardless of how old you are, what country you come from, or how much money you have. It’s also important to remember that mental illnesses are no one’s fault; they are biological brain disorders.

The symptoms of mental illness can be devastating not only for those afflicted, but also for their family members and loved ones. Mental illnesses can strike their victims with delusions, hallucinations, panic attacks, or hopelessness and despair – causing suffering and disrupting lives.

Sadly, in the Latino/Hispanic community, this story can be even worse. Stressors such as leaving one’s country behind, leaving behind a situation of violence, not knowing the new culture, intergenerational tension in immigrant families, and poverty can all make mental health problems worse. For these reasons, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute on Drug Abuse report that Latino/Hispanics in this country tend to experience higher rates of depression, distress, PTSD, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions.

But it’s important to remember that there’s hope. With the proper medical attention, mental illnesses can be treated – but they won’t go away by themselves. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, it’s important to go see a doctor. A psychologist or a psychiatrist can prescribe medications or recommend a therapist to help with the problem.

Ana Lazu, a mental health promotora and one-time Executive Director of Latinos Unidos Siempre in Connecticut, says that when she began her own struggles with mental health problems, she faced a “double stigma.” There was the challenge of having a mental illness and the challenge of confronting this illness as a Latina. “Within the Hispanic community,” she says, there was the attitude that you don’t talk about psychology; you may go to your priest, family members or espiritista for help, but you would never visit a doctor or take medication.”

Yet visiting a doctor or taking medication can be life changing. In this month, as the United Nations recognizes World Mental Health Day, be sure to take care of your own mental health or the mental health of a loved one. If you need help, don’t try to go it alone.

(Ellen Lee Alderton is Director of Education for La Mano Amiga, a national nonprofit organization providing informational resources to Latino immigrants.)