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How taking a cultural approach to mental health can aid Latino youth

By John Marth, Senior Content Specialist

The rise in anti-Latino and anti-immigrant speech in the past two months has been well-documented, and has exposed other struggles Latino youth face every day. Factors like discrimination, violence, and, for immigrants, integrating with U.S. culture place many Latinos in an environment often defined by anxiety and conflict.

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Stress from these issues could be eased with mental health services, but a lot of young Latinos either don’t have access to or don’t know where to find services that can help them. Barriers like stigma, misinformation, and others can prevent Latino youth from seeking the help they need to deal with their specific set of challenges.

Patricia Foxen (bio), Deputy Director of Research at NCLR, has studied the circumstances that shape the mental health of young Latinos, as well as the types of treatment that address their needs. Her report, Mental Health Services for Latino Youth: Bridging Culture and Evidence, was released today in a press briefing that highlighted why this research is more relevant than ever in post-election America. Rita Carreón, Deputy Vice President of the Institute of Hispanic Health at NCLR moderated the briefing. As NCLR President and CEO Janet Murguía said in her opening remarks, “the report is sobering, but it’s also much-needed and timely” considering the current cultural climate.

Even the most resilient need help sometimes

Foxen’s previous work shows that most Latinos show signs of resilience and find ways to cope with their problems with help from their families and communities. For others, though, pressures can lead to serious psychological distress. Foxen pointed out that, “Latino youth tend to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behaviors than other youth.”

In addition to the common sources of stress that every teenager has to deal with, Latinos encounter discrimination as minorities, specifically with the surge of racist and anti-immigrant words and actions lobbed at Latino youth after the election. Murguía pointed out that 80% of teachers surveyed by the Southern Poverty Law Center reported an increase in anxiety among Latino students after the Nov. 8 election. And of the 1,500 incidents of verbal threats, three-quarters were about deporting immigrants and building a wall.

Facing these levels of hate—as well as other factors—it’s vital for Latinos to be able to access the right programs to help them cope. Murguía noted that Foxen’s research points to possible solutions: “Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. Services should be tailored to the specific challenges these young people face. We also need to use what makes so many of these kids resilient in designing mental health programs.”

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Building on what works

Many of the more successful services in treating Latino youth have been based on the idea of being culturally appropriate. Broadly speaking, these services acknowledge an individual’s cultural frames of reference, and these frames are used to inform their treatment. Culturally appropriate services tend to be community-based and focus on healing rather than labeling the person with a mental illness.

It’s an idea that works: NCLR Affiliate La Clínica del Pueblo has been providing these services since 1984. Executive Director Alicia Wilson highlighted two programs that focus on building a sense of community to deal with mental distress. Mi Refugio provides services to unaccompanied minors at Northwestern High School, just outside of DC. The program emphasizes understanding the complex problems these students face as refugees who came to the area without their parents. “They’re adjusting to schools that aren’t ready to meet their emotional needs,” Wilson said. The program focuses on resilience-building and socializing integrated into both group therapy and individual therapy.

The other program, Mi Familia, is a family-based method that works on community-building and bonding across generations.

Starting a conversation

Foxen hopes the report will open a national conversation about bridging the gap between traditional services and services that are more catered to the client’s cultural needs and understanding. Pierluigi Mancini—Board President for the National Latino Behavioral Health Association—is optimistic that the report can do just that: “This report can be the blueprint for any provider, school, or state that wants to use cultural competency to provide mental health services.”

Each panelist reinforced the idea that ending the stigma is key to bridging the gap. Mancini mentioned that something as simple as an in-school session “can remove the stigma of having to leave school to get mental health help.”

Wilson emphasized that mental health care isn’t just one-on-one therapy. “It surfaces in a lot of different ways, including building on protective factors and resilience, not just things that are billable to insurance companies.”