On paper, the numbers do not add up. According to a 2007 report by the Center for Disease Control, Latina teenagers in the United States are the group most likely to seriously consider suicide. A 2009 fact-sheet put out by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) puts the number of Latinas seeking mental help or treatment at only 21 percent.
“There’s a lot of stigma around the issue of being depressed,” says Sarah, a 22-year-old Los Angeles community organizer. “Our families haven’t really heard the term or it can often be waved off as being crazy or whiny.”
Fighting the stigma with facts
The National Institute of Mental Health describes depression as a serious medical condition that is more than temporarily feeling sad or blue. Depression interferes with everyday activities, like sleep and appetite, and sufferers cannot simply “snap out of it.” Though microbiology explains the science behind depression, high-stress environments like poverty and uncertain documentation status contribute to higher rates of symptoms.
“As a teenager, even before that, I was a very depressive young girl,” explains Sarah. “I was low-income, undocumented, part of a city where you could see so many injustices on any given day: the reality of poverty, the cruelty of the immigration system, domestic violence, alcoholism, and so on.”
While the causes of depression are complicated, one thing is certain: depression is highly treatable. NAMI estimates that between 80-90 percent of people diagnosed with major depression can be effectively treated.
If depression is highly treatable, why are Latinas both disproportionately affected and disproportionately not receiving treatment? Financial hurtles play a huge role.
“Lack of resources allows depression to go untreated and manifest itself in worse ways,” says Sarah.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 25.3 percent of Latinos lived below the federal poverty line compared with 12.8 percent of Caucasian Americans. With many psychotherapy rates costing upwards of a hundred dollars per session, financial concerns both increase rates of depressive symptoms and block access to treatment.
Getting help and going to see a counselor is definitely seen as bougie or something that Latinos have a problem admitting out loud,” says 20-year-old college student Angelicca Telles.
Changing minds, changing communities
“If [treatment] is never an option or something that we grow up seeing as acceptable,” says Telles, “then it doesn’t matter how accessible it is.”
Though traditional psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IP), are often the most inaccessible financially, there are other accessible and cost-effective resources for support. As Telles points out, the first step in accessing resources is ending the stigma around asking for help. Healing a Latina community suffering from suicide and depression extends beyond healing individuals to healing communities.
Emphasizing the role family plays in a Latina’s decision to find support Telles says “if the family is judgmental or not supportive of the person getting help then the process is stalled.” Expanding the idea of family to include entire communities, support is critical to helping young Latinas onto the road of recovery.
Latinas can find support from their community and from each other. National mental health organizations with local chapters, such as NAMI, hold local, weekly, and free support groups for people living with mental illness and for family members or loved ones of those living with mental illness. Many of these support groups are held in both Spanish and English.
For Latinas who are interested in exploring psychotherapy, websites like “Psychology Today” list therapists according to city or zip code and include explanations of individual therapist’s credentials, what areas she specializes in, accepted health insurance, and price per session. The website even notes whether a therapist is on a sliding-scale, meaning that the counselor charges patients based on her income and ability to pay.
For when suicidal ideas intrude into everyday life, national hotlines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) offer 24-hour access to trained counselors who can provide crisis support in Spanish or in English.
Other self-care tips are to keep a journal, exercise, and talk about feelings with a trusted friend or mentor. Maria de los Angeles Contreras says creating art helps her relax after battling with depression since middle school. “My parents bought me new paint and I painted whenever I wanted and no one was allowed to say anything. Painting is one of the things that really relaxes me now,” says 19-year-old Contreras.
The most important fact to remember is that you are not alone and there is help.
“I think talking with others helps,” says Sarah. “I used to feel like my problems were my own until I spoke to others and realized I could find support and kindness in hearing other’s stories and their words of hope.”