Stigma, Costs, Language Barriers Complicate Mental Illness for Latinos

(Photo by Víctor Matos via El Diario/La Prensa)

Verónica has suffered from depression for several years but it’s been exacerbated by the fact her religion does not recognize her condition as an illness, she said. (Photo by Víctor Matos via El Diario/La Prensa)

People who push others onto subway tracks, or children who kill their parents in unimaginable circumstances are only some of the cases that highlight the mental health crisis plaguing some New Yorkers, and the apparent lack of attention they receive.

It’s a “difficult and complicated situation, dealing with family and with the system,” said Reynaldo – who asked that his last name not be used – referring to the condition of his 29-year-old son, who suffers from schizophrenia.

His son, who was diagnosed at 18, is able to keep his illness “under control” thanks to daily medication. However, he has only recently begun to lead a normal life. Following an incident with his therapist, he was deemed a danger to society and secluded for 18 months at a hospital for patients with mental illnesses.

Described by his relatives as “a calm person,” Reynaldo’s son started working at a department store two months ago, but the worry that something could happen to him persists.

Patients and experts agree that mental illnesses are still taboo in society, especially in the Latino community, which holds many people back from seeking specialized help.

“There is assistance available in Spanish,” Reynaldo acknowledged, “but not necessarily an understanding of the culture, which might have prevented my son from being sent to the hospital.”

He admitted this is why the family prefers “to keep quiet about his condition, because people generally label schizophrenics as violent.”

According to the NYC Department of Health (DOH), 1 in every 4 New Yorkers will suffer from a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Despite that figure, warned Alan Avilés, president of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC), “they suffer from the stigma of mental illness and are embarrassed to seek the help they need.”

Like Reynaldo’s son, Ashley Jacob – an emotionally disturbed woman who perpetrated an attack in the subway last July – has a long psychiatric history, which required her to receive outpatient treatment at Bellevue Hospital, according to police.

However, psychiatrist Jorge Petit believes it’s a mistake to think that all people with emotional problems are violent.

Regarding the cases of assaults in public spaces, “it should first be determined whether the attacker truly has a mental illness,” said Petit, who was the associate commissioner in the Division of Mental Hygiene at DOH.

Cultural and language barriers

Petit, who also created the consulting firm Quality Healthcare Solutions Group, stressed that the Latino community doesn’t use existing resources to the fullest.

“Language barriers, low access to information, a lack of health insurance, costly services,” and a shortage of multilingual and multicultural staff are part of that reality, he said, “in addition to all of the cultural stigmas that hunt us as a community.”

Verónica, a 38-year-old Latina who has suffered from depression over the past six years, is very familiar with such prejudice. Moreover, she has to deal with the obstacles imposed by her Muslim religion, which doesn’t recognize the illness.

“At my church they tell me that what I need is to pray so I can be more with God,” explained Verónica, who has two children and sought professional help in 2007 when she thought of taking her own life.

“Shortly before that my husband had died, and I had recently found out that my youngest son was suffering from autism,” she said. But her illness seemed to stem from an earlier experience.

“When I was six years old, I saw my father take his life with a gun.”

According to her psychiatrist, this incident led to the problem that her fellow Muslim worshippers refuse to see.

“That hurts me because they don’t understand that it’s not something a person can control,” said Veronica.

According to a New York Times quote from D.J. Jaffe, director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, the same outcome happened in the case of Ashley Jacob and similar individuals in terms of New York’s mental health crisis.

Since “thousands of troubled individuals with violent histories were released from mental health facilities,” due to budget cuts (which surpassed $132 million in New York State from 2009 to 2012), “No one monitors if they are taking their medication. Or follows up to see if they are a danger to themselves or others,” said Jaffe.

No wonder, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) gave New York State psychiatric services a B in its 2012-2013 report, and condemned the severe lack of beds and crisis stabilization units in hospitals. As a whole, the United States received a grade of F.