Mental health is one of those issues that many of us prefer to keep quiet or sweep under the rug.
But the reality cannot be kept quiet: almost one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. We are talking about 52.9 million grandparents, parents, children, neighbors and friends, according to 2020 figures corresponding to the first year of the COVID pandemic.
And we now know that the pandemic has not only deepened many of these conditions, but has exacerbated disparities in diagnosis and treatment for minorities of color, particularly Latinos and African-Americans.
Black and Hispanic youth were approximately 14% less likely than non-Hispanic white youth to receive treatment for their depression before the pandemic. The situation has surely worsened. And right now, about 50% to 75% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for a mental health disorder.
That is to say, a vast segment of our new generations suffers prison confinement instead of medical treatment for what constitutes an evident public health crisis.
What can be done? Beyond the structural problems of access to diagnosis and treatment, which require far-reaching institutional strategies, experts tell us that there are things we can do in the realm of our personal responsibility to make a difference.
“Open and transparent communication is very important. And that starts at an early age. It is important that parents realize the importance of talking to their children,” says Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola.
The mental health specialist explains that among us Latinos there is a kind of “cultural silence” about mental health problems, a stigma that prevents us from speaking up when we feel depressed or when we even have suicidal thoughts.
All of which makes it all the more crucial to start that first conversation with our loved ones. As the doctor suggests, we need to be resourceful in initiating that first talk that will help break the cycle of silence and put our mentally challenged loved ones on the path to the care they deserve.
As a journalist, I participated in the new campaign “Let’s talk about Mental Health” launched this year by La Red Hispana and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The idea is to make available to all the resources and advice in Spanish that could change many lives.
It’s time to break the silence. The path to mental health begins with one small but vital step: starting a conversation with our loved ones about their feelings and challenges.
And just as important, telling them they are not alone.