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Mental health care and the Latino community

By The Health News Team | July 29, 2019
Mental health care and the Latino community

It's a commonly held truth — validated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness — that the Latino community generally does not talk about mental health. With almost 30% of San Diego County identifying as Latino, addressing the barriers that Latinos may face in receiving mental health treatment is more important than ever.

According to Monica Hinton, a social worker at Sharp McDonald Center, Latinos experience just as many mental health conditions as the rest of the population. The most common mental health disorders among the Latino community are anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chemical dependency, she says.

"Unfortunately, the biggest disparity is access to treatment and the quality of treatment they are provided," says Hinton.

6 barriers to seeking treatment
Even when members of the Latino community recognize and seek to address mental illness, six barriers can keep them from accessing treatment:

1. Privacy concerns
In many Latino families, there is an expectation of privacy and that family members do not talk in public about challenges at home. Individuals in the Latino community may also fear being labeled as "crazy," Hinton says. However, all mental health services are bound by confidentiality and a person's privacy is always secure.

"Latinos are a collectivistic culture with strong family alignment and they will often involve the entire family in decisions about health and treatment," says Hinton. "So, it is important for mental health professionals to welcome family members in the treatment process if the patient so chooses."

2. Language barriers
Language barriers can cause a true roadblock when trying to describe health symptoms.

"Many behavioral health programs are recognizing the need for a bilingual care team and are adding Spanish-speaking therapists and nurses on staff to assist with translating," says Hinton. "In addition, many facilities, especially Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and Sharp McDonald Center, put much effort into making sure their staff are culturally competent and their programs are culturally inclusive."

3. Misdiagnosis
"It is important for providers to be aware of non-Western descriptions of mental health challenges," says Hinton. "Many Latinos describe mental illness in terms of physical pain."

For example, a Latino person may say they feel heavy and tired or have unexplained headaches when describing symptoms of depression. They may interpret anxiety or panic attacks as behaviors or physical responses, rather than emotional experiences.

"As a result, Latinos are likely to seek treatment from a primary care doctor rather than psychiatric services," says Hinton. "When this happens, the doctor may not recognize the patient is depressed or experiencing an anxiety disorder."

4. Natural medicine and home remedies
Traditional healers and home remedies are used often in the Latino culture to treat health-related issues, including mental health. While health care providers support patients in using traditional healing methods, they ask patients to disclose this information in case the natural remedy adversely conflicts with any medications prescribed, Hinton says.

"No matter how natural the remedy is, it is important to be honest, because adverse interactions with medication can make matters worse and even be lethal," she says.

5. Insurance
Nationally, 19% of Latinos are uninsured, compared with 7.5% of white, non-Hispanic Americans. "Low rates of insurance coverage for Latinos is likely to be a function of ethnicity, immigration status and citizenship status," says Hinton.

A significant percentage of the Latino population work lower-wage jobs or are self-employed, where there is not any employee-based insurance available, she says. Therefore, these Latinos live uninsured.

6. Citizenship status
For undocumented immigrants, the fear of deportation can prevent them from seeking help.
According to Hinton, organizations such as Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services, LA RAZA and Legal Aid help asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants get health insurance and other needed services.

"A person can dial 211 from any phone to get referrals for resources," says Hinton. "All these programs are anonymous and confidential, and offer comprehensive programs."

Seeking treatment
Service providers are becoming more aware of the disparities that affect the Latino community and are working toward strategies to empower Latinos in seeking care, says Hinton.

For example, Sharp Mesa Vista has launched a Spanish cognitive therapy program to provide mental health support for major depression, bipolar disorder, panic and anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and trauma to the Spanish speaking community is San Diego. Call 858-836-8459 or visit the cognitive therapy program page to learn more.

It is important to also know that resources are available for bilingual services, she says. "Do not let fear of what others may think prevent you or a loved one from getting better," says Hinton. "Help is out there."

Learn more about mental health services in San Diego County.

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