By Dr. Ricardo Romo
America’s most discussed issue of the past few years has been health care. Almost every Latino family in Texas thinks often, if not daily, about their health status and adequate health care benefits in the event of need. However, when it comes to mental health, there is insufficient attention paid to signs of depression, addiction, and suicide and often insufficient access to affordable care.
Studies show that only one in five Latinos with symptoms of a psychological disorder approach a doc- tor to discuss their symptoms. Moreover, only one in ten Latinos approach a mental health professional. But when it comes to mental health, Latino families have little information about symptoms needing attention, prevention, or treatment.
This essay addresses mental health in the Latino community, with emphasis on youth and military veterans. Texas, with more than 10 million Latinos, can ill afford to ignore the rapid in- crease of mental health problems in families. Moreover, a sizable number of the 1.2 million Latino veterans live in Texas. Many mental problems can be avoided with more education and early detection.
A new study published by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) addresses the mental health of young Latinos, a group viewed as most vulnerable to illness and suicide. Janet Munguia, President, and CEO of NCLR, writes that “Today’s generation of young people is coming of age during a period of social uncertainty and upheaval that may threaten their sense of safety and stability in the world.” According to the American Psychological Association, today’s millennial are “America’s most stressed generation.” Muguia worries that we are not doing enough to help Latino youths– whom she views as living under a “range of pressures, including heightened economic in- equality, increased financial burdens, and a reduced job market.”
The NCLR report concluded from numerous studies “that Latino youth have the highest rates of depressive and suicidal symptoms of any ethnic group in the United States; rates of post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and risk for anxiety and behavioral problems are also elevated among these youth.”
Getting professional help has long been a problem for young Latinos. First, there is the problem of properly identifying mental health symptoms and being willing to seek help. Studies show that Black and Latino youth are often punished more severely than Whites for acting out in class or misbehaving in school social settings. School personnel and teachers often promote the idea of zero tolerance which results in many minorities being pushed out of middle and high school before graduation and can result in depression, anger, and anxiety.
In today’s world, not having a high school degree is an added disadvantage in finding a good job, in addition to being a social stigma for Latino youth. In many instances, Latino families work for hourly wages with few if any medical benefits. The percent of Latinos with a B.A. degree stands at 13.79 percent, while only 64.2 percent of Latinos graduate from high school compared to 93.5 percent for Whites.
U.S. Census data show a poverty rate of 26.7 percent for Texas Latinos without a high school degree. Latino families living in poverty or with limited proficiency in English also experience multiple barriers to accessing adequate prevention and treatment services, thereby exacerbating mental health care disparities.
Mental health experts give many reasons for inadequate access. These reasons include the cost of services, lack of health insurance, stigmas around mental health issues, and, in many places, a shortage of accessible, culturally appropriate mental and behavioral health programs and providers that can effectively screen, diagnose, and treat Latinos.
In many instances families struggle to convince their children and teens to seek mental health help or undergo treatment. There are reasons for their resistance. Patrick W. Corrigan and Amy C. Watson offer some answers in their Psychiatry journal article noting that “Although stigmatizing attitudes are not limited to mental illness, the public seems to disapprove of persons with psychiatric disabilities significantly more than per- sons with related conditions such as physical illness.”
II Latino Military Families Over the last fifty years, military families have faced significant challenges with regard to adequate mental health treatment. This is especially significant in Latino communities. The U.S. Census reports that 1.2 million Latinos age 18 and older are veterans of the U.S armed forces. It is disturbing to learn that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) afflicts almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, and 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan.
It is a fact that Latinos served in Vietnam in dis- proportionately higher numbers compared to their numbers in the general population. Thus it is not surprising that families in Latino communities have struggled for nearly half a century with issues of mental health treatment for spouses and children.
Over the past ten years, I have worked with several Vietnam veterans groups in identifying individuals who attended high school in San Antonio and were killed in action in South- east Asia. I learned much from the survivors of that war, several of whom were classmates of mine at Fox Tech High School. For ex- ample, today only 25% of those who served in Vietnam are still alive, according to JR Garza, a veteran who served with the US Army’s 173rd Assault Helicopter Company at Dong Ha along the DMZ – Demilitarized Zone during 1971-1972.
Over the last 18 years JR Garza, a 1970 Fox Tech graduate, has worked with veterans on a daily basis as a volunteer. When Garza returned to Texas after his military service, he and other veterans found an unsympathetic public concerning service in Vietnam. It was not a popular war with the American public and the nation seemed anxious to put the conflict behind them. In doing so, military veterans felt abandoned. Families who tried to help family members with mental health disorders found that they could not– the medical issues were too complex. Garza witnessed many tragedies among his friends. Anger and hostility among the veterans often led to isolation. Left to sort out their anxieties, many turned to self-medication and alcohol addiction, which often led to domestic violence and conflict.
As a result of the ambivalent feelings about Vietnam, veterans did not receive much help with their health problems, including those impacted by Agent Orange and PTSD. These were difficult times for those who had seen their fellow soldiers die in battle or suffer horrible injuries.
One of the biggest com- plaints about Veterans Ad- ministration medical services has centered around their inability to provide adequate medical assistance to veterans with PTSD. But much has improved since the 1970s. Today local veteran medical units offer 24×7
counseling and suicide prevention support. The men and women who signed up to defend our country deserve adequate care and treatment.
The NCLR report reminds us that “the Latino youth population currently ac- counts for one-quarter of all youth under the age of 18—a portion that will become one-third within the next 20 years.” Every aspect of health concerns us, but when it concerns youth, we are not seeing state governments ad- dressing the consequences of inadequate mental health care facilities in schools and colleges, which often results in high rates of homelessness, depression, and suicide.
Here I have addressed some, but not all, of the damaging risk factors of in- adequate attention to mental health. The NCLR reports offer that “effectively preventing and treating mental health issues among at-risk Latino youth will improve academic achievement and engagement, reduce involvement in the juvenile justice system, and support an overall culture of health and community.” That is a commendable goal for all Latino communities.