EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.
“Esa está loca….” These are three words Latinas dread.
No one wants to be la loca. Once you are branded “the crazy one,” the damage seems impossible to undo. The angst of knowing tíos, primas and other relatives will whisper about it at the next family gathering and the feeling there is nothing that can be done to remedy it can be overwhelming.
Many Latinas may find themselves faced with choosing between working towards their mental well-being or trying to avoid looking “weak,” which many mistakenly believe is any expression of concern with one’s mental health.
In Mental Health Awareness Month, it is worth recognizing that in the Latino community, as well as in the Black, South Asian, Native American and other communities of color, stigma about mental illness runs deep. This is arguably due to the internalized generational trauma many people of color face, as immigrants and refugees, especially those who come from low-income communities where mental health resources are scarce.
Singer Demi Lovato’s recent initiative to provide mental health counseling on her tour this year was a step in ensuring communities of color are supported by others who understand what they are experiencing. The artist knows firsthand the challenges and stigma of dealing with depression. But hers is also a story of resilience.
Efforts like this are particularly important for those who cannot afford to seek help from a mental health professional. Providing this resource is helpful in obtaining initial diagnoses, which are key if there is to be a systemic change in the way Latinas and their communities approach mental illness. Award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda’s documentary “Some Girls” focuses on Latinas and mental health as well, by exploring issues of identity within the Latino community by focusing on a group of troubled teenage girls in a Bronx-based suicide prevention program.
Latina teenagers have a rate of suicide attempts of 13. 5 percent, higher than their non-Hispanic White female and Hispanic male peers. Many factors contribute to this growing epidemic. One factor is the familism, that is placing family’s needs first, customary in the Latino community, which author Luis Alberto Urrea describes in his latest book, The House of Broken Angels. He weaves the story of many Latinas and Latinos struggling with identity and roles both in family and nation.
Latino families are, for the most part, tight-knit groups who value commitment to the familial ties like a de facto social contract. When born Latina, you bear the responsibilities of being a part of this group, rooted in loyalty and pride. This agreement is modeled largely in the image of the parents who project the pride of their dedication and hard work onto their children, particularly their daughters.
The expectations of what makes a “good” Latina are often rooted in propriety and maintaining appearances, specifically when it involves something as personal as mental health or illness. Expressing difficulty in grappling with these issues, women may be dismissed as “too emotional,” leaving any productive conversation about breaking the status quo, out of the question. It is far too difficult for some then to even consider seeking help from a mental health professional.
Confronting mental health concerns during the adolescent years is considerably more difficult. Factoring in puberty with increasing pressures from friends, classmates, and family to be “good enough” as a Latina, student and daughter can quickly become a grim equation.
Growing up I would hear the women in my family say to one another when they experienced struggle and dared to express themselves openly, “¡Aguántate como las machas!” (“Suck it up like the tough ones!”).
That expression rings true in many Latino households in America today, where the expectations for our young women are often clouded by projections of “perfect angels.” That is, instead of seeing them as complete human beings with mind, body, and soul who have many experiences adults in their lives are likely unaware of.
This narrative is highlighted in Erika L. Sanchez’s book, I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which also explores the complexities of experiencing depression while being Latina.
Pressures from peers, teachers, and family can lead these expectations to reach a cacophony and run the risk of having irreversible consequences. This is why it is crucial that we welcome these conversations with our girls, if we truly care about making their mental well-being a priority.
Identifying when someone is suffering from depression is key in ensuring that they do not become part of the 13.5 percent of Latinas who attempt suicide. It is necessary to learn the signs, so that we are not left wondering what we could have done earlier only when making arrangements for a life that ended too soon.
During May, there is an opportunity to see our young women as complete beings, the first step in providing Latina youth a productive future, with the resources they need to overcome the obstacles they face.
Providing them support beginning with counseling, and giving them outlets such as physical activities in a culturally competent setting, for example, are some of what our girls need.
With high-profile Latinas such as Lovato, Camila Cabello, and Mariah Carey speaking out about their own experiences with mental health issues, and revealing this intimate detail of their lives, they are giving a platform for other Latinas to address their experiences with mental health.
When provided with the language and support of family and community, developing the tools to overcome these challenges is possible. It is immensely valuable to be attentive to the young Latinas in our lives, and most of all to let our girls know their worth and value. It may just be that the simplest of things help keep our girls thriving.