Mental health care disparities among Latinx youth in Little Village, Humboldt Park

Looking West on Division Street. Division/California. Humboldt Park, Chicago. Photo provided by Flickr.

CHICAGO — Teenaged Latinas are the nation’s #1 at-risk population for suicide, according to Dr. Luis H. Zayas of the University of Texas at Austin. But, for some youth on Chicago’s south and west sides, mental health is the last thing that they want to talk about with their families.

In the United States, over 40 million adults suffer from mental illness. Mental illness doesn’t just affect one demographic; people of color are often left out of the discussion.

Because of the many negative stigmas surrounding the discussions Latinx families have about mental health, limited healthcare resources and sometimes the possibility of being undocumented, most depression, PTSD and even bipolar disorder goes untreated.

“The depression got the best of me. I cried almost everyday,” said Gabriela, a 22 year woman from Puerto Rico, currently living in Humboldt Park.

“I always felt angry and sad and even had suicidal thoughts. I didn’t understand why I felt like that. I didn’t know I was depressed.”

Unfortunately, Gabriela’s story is not uncommon among young people living Chicago’s Latinx communities.

“I think Latinx families don’t talk about mental health because there is a sort of shame attached to needing to seek counseling,” Gabriela said.

“Since high school, I have suffered from really bad anxiety. What I didn’t realize is that so does my mom, my sister, and most of my cousins — we just never talk about it.”

While most of the Latinx population is younger and open to new ideas and medical practices, there are still a lot of cultural expectations and traditions that are held onto with that identity.

Some values include — but are not limited to — hard work, family, hospitality and religion; faith being one of the most important parts of Latinx culture, or Latinidad.

Latinx families, especially those that are very Catholic and hold on to specific gender roles, have very strong cultural values. Typically, mental illness that is brought on by one’s work, life or school situations, gender identity or even undocumented status is associated with evil spirits or a lack of faith in God.

“When I was 16 years old, I tried to commit suicide,” said Henry Acosta in an interview with CNN, who is the former executive director for the National Resource Center for Hispanic Mental Health.

According to the NRCHMH, about 1 in every 7 Latinxs has attempted suicide.

“Latinxs always hear how they have to be self-reliant when they have problems or even turn to prayer. But if you have a chemical imbalance, prayer won’t help you.”

According to a press release from the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago, Illinois ranks third when it comes to states that have had the largest budget cuts to mental health care services at $113.7 million between FY2009 and 2011.

“With effective services and supports, people living with major mental illness can and do achieve recovery,” reads the report. “Cuts of this magnitude will disrupt such services, causing escalated visits to emergency rooms, hospitalizations, homelessness, entanglement with juvenile and criminal justice systems, the loss of critical developmental years, premature deaths and suicides.”

In an article from the Chicago Tribune, published in April of 2015:

The governor’s office argues that the federal Affordable Care Act has reduced the need for state funding for mental health care services by expanding Medicaid and requiring private plans to cover mental health care.
People who qualified for state mental health care services but not for Medicaid can now sign up and get more of their care paid for by the federal government, requiring less funding from the state, said Department of Healthcare and Family Services spokesman John Hoffman.
But Medicaid doesn’t cover some of the services community-based providers say help stabilize people with mental illness, such as funding that helps people get jobs after mental health treatment. They also object to Rauner’s proposal to cut $13 million in funds that support housing for homeless people.

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, there are only 6 public mental health care clinics in the entire city. Of those six, none serve traditionally Latinx neighborhoods like Pilsen, Little Village or Humboldt Park.

The communities that are most affected by these cuts are those that have high unemployment rates, schools are less than quality, and households are typically lower income, working class or undocumented.

“My parents being undocumented puts a lot of strain on all of the kids,” Jaime, a 19 year old man from Little Village. “I didn’t realize this until I was older and able to pinpoint why I’m not okay — it’s living in constant fear that I will wake up one day and my parents will be gone.”

“My younger siblings are 7 and 9, but I already see them struggling with stress and anxiety.”

Undocumented families cannot access health services and health insurance due to their status. Many live in fear that if they become ill and go to the doctor’s office that they will be turned in and deported.

Rey, a 40 year old man from Humboldt Park remembers always feeling alone in his struggles as a young adult. He suffers from depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

“I was never involved in gangs, but I definitely became addicted to cocaine in my teenage years,” shared Rey. “No one ever listened to me, and my parents were never really in the picture.”

“I turned to a coping method that was for some reason more accesible than having a conversation with my parents about medication or therapy. I didn’t even know that I could have that conversation — I didn’t know how.”

“Now that I am older, I understand a lot more about my mental health. I know where to go to get help and I have a therapist I can talk to.”

In order to work toward a generation of Latinx families that can openly discuss and provide mental health resources for each other, we must break down the oppressive forces created by not only the larger society, but our own cultures’ expectations when it comes to gender roles, acculturation and outdated traditions.

“My hope is that my three kids, in learning more about my own mental health, can learn how to deal with their problems, too,” said Rey. “I don’t want them to be afraid of reaching out for help.”

“Latino families are always there for each other, in faith, in community, in struggles — whether we really like it or not. We should be there for each other when we struggle with mental health, too.”

Note: First names have been changed to protect identities.

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