By Jennifer Patiño –
Latinos, regardless of immigration status, encounter various barriers to seeking mental health treatment.
These barriers impacting Latinos as a group include affordability, transportation, lack of resources in their community and scarcity of Spanish speaking professionals. A survey shows that in 1999 there were only 29 Latino mental health professionals for every 100,00 Latinos in the U.S., according to the Surgeon General. More recent figures were not available.
Within the disparities faced by the Latino community, undocumented women are especially vulnerable to factors that may lead to mental illness in the first place.
“The clients I have worked with who have been undocumented many times present with anxiety, with depression and many times it’s related to the social stressors around them,” said Dr. Nayeli Chavez, of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, home of the Center for Latino Mental Health.
“The experience of being undocumented presents a lot of challenges for women in particular who come from their countries of origin by themselves and don’t have a support network in the United States,” Dr. Chavez added.
Being undocumented may also make a woman more susceptible to domestic abuse because their status can become a way in which an abusive partner may threaten them, Dr. Chavez said. Undocumented women also are more likely to suffer all kinds of abuse in the workplace, threats about being deported and being unpaid.
“Sometimes they are discriminated against, they are harassed,” Dr. Chavez said. “All of those things contribute to feelings of isolation, all kind of stressors that are many times linked to mental health difficulties.”
Over the past three years, Illinois has cut a total of $113.7 million, about 15 percent of its overall state mental health funding, hurting community mental health centers. Unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of centers that Latinos are most likely to turn to when they do decide to seek help. Dr. Chavez said that because of the cuts, the few centers that provide bilingual assistance are cutting those services “in half or sometimes even more.”
The full impact of the budget cuts on Spanish bilingual services and Latino-focused agencies has not yet been studied. Lack of data on specific Latino/Hispanic issues is a problem in ending healthcare disparity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. The office released a statement earlier this year saying that under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it will improve data collection on minority groups including questions about primary language.
The Psychological Impact of Fear
Dr. Virginia Quiñonez, also of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology said that when dealing with undocumented immigrants in need of counseling, “one of the things that’s very important for mental health professionals to understand is the reality of people who are undocumented, the fear factor, the fear of being found, of feeling insecure in this country because of the lack of documentation.”
According to Dr. Quiñonez, post-9/11 immigration policy changes and anti-immigrant sentiment have made immigrants wary of seeking help when they may need it most.
In order to combat this fear and the impact it has on treatment, Dr. Quiñonez advocates cultural competency, empathy, and respect.
“I haven’t had to walk across the Arizona desert, but if I can try to understand what that experience is like, then I can help them get to another place that will be better for them,” she said.
Undocumented immigrants underuse social services
Through striving to foster cultural competency among professionals that deal with Latinos, Dr. Quiñonez and Dr. Chavez challenge myths about Latinos in the United States. One of those myths is that Latinos, especially those that are undocumented, overuse social services.
“In fact there are lots of people worried about the underutilization of mental health services among Latinos in general. When you think about immigrants, it’s even less and within immigrants, undocumented [immigrants], it’s almost non-existent,” said Dr. Chavez.
She said that this is because Latinos have a difficult time seeking help from outside sources. They are more likely to seek help from their community, their families, friends, or their religion and it’s only when they have very severe levels of impairment that they seek treatment.
Unfortunately prejudice in the medical field does not limit itself to waiting rooms. “The biggest problem that exists is the prejudice that is part of the larger population and how it’s part of the therapists as well,” Dr. Chavez said.
For those out there who are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness and who are afraid to get help, Dr. Chavez suggests turning to whatever source they trust and looking for an agency that they feel comfortable with. “It’s important that they know that they don’t have to feel sad, they don’t have to feel afraid,” she said. “They can have a better life and help is out there.”
This story was reported by Latina-Voices.com in partnership with Mujeres Latinas en Accion mujereslatinasenaccion.org. They received a Local Reporting Award from Community News Matters, a program of The Chicago Community Trust.