Latinx Mental Health: There is Nothing Shameful About Mental Illness


"There should be no difference between seeking help for a sore throat and seeking help for mental illness." -Dr. Gil

How do you support Latinx mental health?

I am the Founder, President, and CEO of Comunilife, Inc. My job is to work with our board, staff, and community to develop culturally appropriate programs that help homeless and at-risk Hispanic New Yorkers access the services they need to live independently and reach their individual potential. In addition to providing direct services, a large part of my job is to advocate on behalf of our clients. This can include working to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and educating our community on the benefits of early intervention. This is especially important for the Latina teens in Life is Precious™, our suicide prevention program for adolescents who are living with mental illness and have seriously considered or attempted suicide. Without this education and outreach teens and their families would have the added stress of not knowing how to access culturally and linguistically appropriate services.

What are some of the biggest myths you’ve heard about Latinx mental health? How do you dispel these myths and fight stigma?

In addition to the common misconceptions that anyone seeking mental health services is “loco” (crazy) and that all people with mental illness are violent, the biggest myths I have heard about Latinx mental health are based on folk belief systems. Many Latinx are guided by the ancient lore of Santeria, Espiritismo, or Curanderismo. I think that education and outreach are the easiest ways to dispel these myths and fight stigma. The more families understand the importance of mental health the more likely they will obtain help. One of the most important venues for this starts with pediatricians. Children’s doctors must make mental health as much a part of the conversation as vaccinations and height/weight. Latinx families respect and follow the advice that primary doctors provide and should a mental health issue be suspected would more likely to seek help.

What are some tips you give to young Latinx with mental health concerns?

Whenever we conduct a workshop in a school or speak with young Latinx, we stress that there is nothing shameful about mental illness. There should be no difference between seeking help for a sore throat and seeking help for mental illness. We also tell them they are not alone in their feelings. We know that within Latinx families there is inherent shame about mental illness and mistrust in psychiatry. It is not within our culture to speak of difficult issues outside of the family. What we tell the young Latinx is that help is available for girls like themselves and that they should not be afraid to ask for help for themselves or for a friend or family member who they might be living with mental illness.

What are some resources you suggest for the Latinx community?

I believe that to truly help young Latinx, resources must be available throughout the community. Schools must be equipped to talk about the issue and make referrals as necessary. Comunilife’s Life is Precious™ program is available for Latina teens who are living with mental illness and/or have seriously considered or attempted suicide. It is not a clinical program but provides activities that deal directly with risk factors, i.e. poor academic performance, low self-esteem, and family dysfunction. Although we know that Latina teens have the highest rate of seriously considering or attempting suicide there are few programs that deal directly with this issue and no evidenced-based models of care. We continue to evaluate Life is Precious™ to prove that it is a community informed evidenced model which can be used throughout the country to help at-risk Latina teens.