Understanding Culture | Mental Illness in the Hispanic Community

Mental Illness Hispanics

by Dr. Melissa Ochoa-Perez

The Latino population is extremely diverse and comprises the largest ethnic minority group in Texas. 50% of Texans are classified as Hispanic. While Latinos suffer from the same mental health conditions the rest of the country faces, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, their perception and their ability to cope with these conditions differs greatly.

Latinos are less likely to seek mental health treatment and there are increased disparities to access treatment, even quality of treatment. Anglo Americans are 60% more likely to reach out for mental health treatment as oppose to Hispanic population. The fear of deportation can prevent undocumented individuals from seeking help and language barriers can significantly impact their quality of care.  Many medical professionals mistake their ability to speak “some” Spanish as being Spanish proficient and fail to secure adequate translation or don’t recognize subtle cultural difference in the diverse Latino community.

A significant number of Latinos work low wage jobs that don’t provide health insurance.  Or, they may be too grateful for any type of insurance in the first place to clarify if or what mental health services are covered, pushing mental health to the bottom of their priority list.

Cultural differences may lead doctors to misdiagnose Latinos and fear of having the stigma of mental illness prevents many Latinos from seeking help.  Hispanic cultures fear being labeled “loco” if they express mental anxiety or concerns, and do not want be viewed as weak or mentally unfit. It is more acceptable to have a neurological or physical condition so many describe their mental health symptoms in physical terms rather than emotional.

Some Latinos may prefer to treat symptoms with healers and/or home remedies and may withhold this fact from their doctors for fear that they will be ridiculed.  They may accept a doctor’s recommendation on the surface but never have the intention to follow through. Although there is evidence that some homeopathic treatments can be helpful, some are known to interact with typical medications or people will fail to take their prescribed medication.  This can lead to further issues or be the reason why medications “fail” to work.

Treating the Latino community can pose a unique challenge. Taking their beliefs, values and cultural differences into account can help ensure proper care.