Mental health solutions must be culturally competent to be successful

Posted 6/13/17

Mental health is a hard topic to discuss, treat and even ask about, especially in the Latinx community. In my family, mental health was something we never discussed — assuming that illness was something visible, tangible. But that misconception …

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Mental health solutions must be culturally competent to be successful

Posted

Mental health is a hard topic to discuss, treat and even ask about, especially in the Latinx community. In my family, mental health was something we never discussed — assuming that illness was something visible, tangible. But that misconception didn’t shield us from being deeply affected by the struggles of mental illness.

My brother struggled to manage his frustration growing up, and we did not know how to cope with the way his underlying mental illness affected our family. In high school he struggled academically, and at home he often did not want to talk to anyone, making communication with my parents more difficult and challenging to know how they could support him. My family tried everything to cope: medical specialists, behavioral meetings at school, and the emergency room in dire situations. With these meetings and treatments came hospital bills, missed work days and, sometimes, legal fines. For my parents, with their limited English, it was difficult to navigate and advocate for appropriate help.

For many communities of color, the challenge of diagnosis is often exacerbated by the challenge of understand doctors and experts, in language — whether that’s speaking English or medical jargon — and in culture. When we do seek treatment, communities of color are often faced with options that are not culturally sensitive, are unaffordable, or of low quality. Colorado recognizes that mental health is a challenging and nuanced part of a person’s overall health, so in May, for mental health month the state launched Let’s Talk Colorado, a campaign that aims to dispel myths and tackle stigmas that keep people from seeking treatment. Programs like this are important first steps that can be bolstered when people from diverse communities participate in these conversations.

After struggling for many years, my brother was was finally referred to a behavioral center where he was diagnosed with anxiety, a condition that wasn’t properly explained to my family. His doctor suggested medication as a treatment option, but our family rejected it after learning that suicide was a potential side effect. They dismissed medication, and claimed, “Las drogas no ayudarán a la mente, ya se te pasara.” Drugs won’t help the mind, you’ll get over it soon.  

Without anyone to help us navigate the complexities of mental health, my brother’s condition worsened. After he turned 18, he stopped attending therapy and school. My parents were always willing to provide support and care, but did not know how. His doctors were not bilingual and didn’t explain dosages, side effects, or benefits of different treatments in a way that made sense to my parents, so they did not understand the scope of his illness or how to treat it. All they knew were the potential dangerous side effects of medication, so my brother went into adulthood untreated.

People of color continue to receive disproportionately lower quality mental health care. We face disparities including cost, quality, and cultural stigma, which hold us back from seeking services. Many studies have shown better health outcomes when mental health treatment is patient-centered, integrated with physical health care, and takes into account the cultural factors that determine our health. We need a healthcare system that is easy to navigate, with adequate resources sensitive to the patient's’ needs.

Expanding resources that communities feel they can navigate will lead to more young adults receiving proper care to stay healthy and finish school, impacting their long term health and financial stability. Ultimately, this will lead our communities to receive the quality health care needed to move closer towards eliminating disparities in mental health. Let’s Talk Colorado and similar campaigns to end mental health stigma would be strengthened by including more resources for communities of color that address the unique barriers we face to talking about mental health, accessing care, and understanding our treatment options. For many people, this would be a first step to discussing mental health in their own cultural language.

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