When Norma Villalobos, 34, was a teen, she felt like she didn’t fit in. Her parents were born in Mexico and she was born in the U.S. She had a traditional Mexican upbringing. “It sets you apart from the rest of your classmates,” she says. She became depressed and developed an eating disorder. “I always wanted to fit the American ideal of being thin.” She felt like she couldn’t talk to her parents because they didn’t understand her. “If I was crying, they would say would say ‘stop with the craziness.’”
Villalobos experienced what is common for many young Latinas. Latina adolescents must not only deal with typical teenage problems, they must also navigate the role of their ethnicity in their identity. Their rates of depression and suicide are high. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011 suicide attempts for Hispanic girls, grades 9-12, were 70% higher than for White girls in the same age group. Latinas in the United States had the highest reported rates, with 21 percent having seriously considered suicide, according to CDC.
Alyse Long, 26, a Domestic Violence counselor at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, says cultural competency is key in addressing this issue. “If you don’t understand their worldview or if you ignore the issues in their culture, they won’t come back,” she says. She feels that some populations are being left out because of cultural barriers. Villalobos, for instance, experienced this kind of obstacle when she spoke to a counselor when she was a teen. “He spoke to me as if I were a white male,” she says.
The good news, however, is that the mental health field is becoming more and more focused on cultural competency. Long chose to pursue a Masters in Psychology with a Specialization in Latino Mental Health because she felt passionate about the cultural disparity and wanted to make a difference. She says, “I see more programs on multicultural education and the incorporation of culture into assessment and treatment. More people are are getting excited about cultural competency.”
Long also works with the Center for Latino Mental Health at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which runs a mental health awareness campaign called Te Escuchamos. The campaign aims to reduce the stigma of mental health issues and provide resources for Latino teens. They also host workshops and trainings in the community for parents and teenagers to learn about mental health.
A nonprofit in New York called Comunilife has also started a program called Life is Precious to prevent suicide in young Latinas. The program combines individual and group counseling, arts therapy, academic support, and nutritional and fitness activities. Psychiatric services are provided by partnering clinics. According to their website, no Latina teen has completed a suicide attempt from the start of the program and 100 percent of the girls are being promoted to the next grade on time. The rate of advancement to the next grade level was only 50 percent prior to the program.
The amount of research in this field is also improving. Dr. Luis H. Zayas, for instance, a prominent figure in the Latino mental health field, has done extensive research on the cultural factors in suicide behavior among Latinas. In June of this year, the University of California Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities also announced the results of a comprehensive, two-year study that “details barriers to access and utilization of mental health services among Latinos in California and offers their solutions for reducing mental health-care disparities.” These are only a few examples.
While in graduate school, Villalobos chose to write her dissertation on female body image and is now a social worker who works with middle school children in Los Angeles, 99 percent whom are Latino. Villalobos has taken her own difficult experiences and used them for the betterment of her community. Understanding the bicultural reality of these young women is essential in addressing their mental health. As more programs are specifically geared to improving Latino mental health, and as more Latinas are becoming educated and giving back to their communities, the rates of depression and suicide will likely decline.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.