Are Latinos ready to talk about mental illnesses?

This article was produced as a series on “Reporting on Stigma and Mental Health Needs in California’s Latino communities” for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship.

Other stories in the series include:

Do Latinos have the necessary resources to treat their mental illnesses?

Mental illness and stigma in the Latino community

CLICK HERE for SPANISH version.  

“Welcome to NAMI en español,” says Pedro Arciniega, in Spanish, before an audience of more than 35 participants who were crammed into a room to attend a month meeting to hear about one young man’s journey who struggles with a severe mental illness.  

During the meeting, the young man talked about how he noticed that he became  ill. He mentioned how he started to believe the radio was talking directly to him and how he would get highly irritable when he was normally a calm person. The participants listened attentively, asking questions about his diagnosis and recovery.

The scene may not seem to be a common one as experts have indicated that Latinos do not tend to feel comfortable talking about mental illnesses in the open.

“Due to the culture and the stigma it is difficult for a Latino to talk about mental health. It is the proverbial elephant in the room,” said Moises Ponce, a clinical therapist for the Riverside University Health System’s Behavioral Health Department. “It is difficult, culturally speaking, due to the belief that ‘the dirty laundry should only be washed at home.’”

It is not easy

Arciniega asks the young man how long it took him to accept that he had a mental disorder, knowing himself how it is not easy to accept the fact that one is ill.

“I had a normal childhood”, he said. Arciniega came from Tijuana when he was 11 years old and settled first in Home Gardens, Corona and now Riverside.

He also said he remembered a typical adolescence: going out with girls, playing soccer and attending parties. It was until around 21 years of age when he started to notice something peculiar. He felt like there were people who were talking about him behind his back and suspected that he was being followed when he drove.

Once he recalled driving all the way to Tijuana because he thought he was being followed by a convoy. He called his parents to tell them about it. “They asked me what I was doing over there. I told them the people were after me. They asked me who were these people I was talking about.”

Two days later, he found himself hospitalized after attempting to take his own life. After that episode, he closed himself off from the world for five years. He described that period as being "locked up". “Not in a real prison cell but a mental one”.

His parents tried to encourage him as much as they could but Arciniega was not ready to accept the fact that there was something wrong. He said he was using alcohol and drugs.

It was during his second visit to Riverside County’s psychiatric hospital, in 2009, when he realized something had changed in his parents and in himself. “I did not know how to live or die,” Arciniega said. “My way of doing things was not working.”

He saw his parents had spoken to a woman by the name of Maria Algarin, a family advocate for the Riverside County Department of Behavioral Health. So he decided it was time to speak up, too. First, he went to his parish priest who advised him to attend a self-help group at the church. That is when he decided he should start to be more sincere with his psychiatrist and talk to her about all the symptoms he was having. When he did, she diagnosed him with schizophrenia.

Both Algarin and Arciniega work for the Family Advocacy Program offered by the Riverside County Department of Behavioral Health that supports families with an adult member with a mental illness diagnosis. The program is available to families, with and without insurance, in most counties in California.  

In addition, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers workshops and support groups that are free and open to the public. In some areas, there is a Spanish component to the program. “All the presentations and classes NAMI offers help reduce stigma because we teach families that mental illnesses are common and they should not be ashamed if they have them”, said Leslie Hillenbrand, a representative from NAMI in Orange County.

The key is to look for treatment options

Algarin noted that may times Spanish-speaking families do not know that mental illness has a name. “Maybe they call it a nervous attack but they know there is something wrong.” She understands what it means to suffer from a severe mental illness because her son was also diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties. "We do not know what it is until we get it", she said.

Algarin suggested that families go beyond the diagnosis is, however, and focus more on searching for the right treatment options. “Although the services are out there, many of our families do not know where to go for help.”

"I Am" by Alka Writes. Acrylic on Canvas.

"I Am" by Alka Writes. Acrylic on Canvas.

In Arciniega’s case, a simple pamphlet that his parents picked up at the psychiatric hospital helped them to understand what was going on. As a result, they found out about the Family Advocacy Program and spoke to Maria Algarin. Then they started to get the help they needed, even before their son was ready.

Even now that he has accepted his mental illness, Arciniega still continues to suffer from highs and lows. Last January, for example, he noticed that the symptoms—unwanted thoughts and negative voices —were more threatening than usual. The trusty techniques he learned in therapy were not working and he began to retreat from the world.

"Maria called me to check in on me and I told her I was not feeling well," he said. He drove himself and checked into the county psychiatric hospital. “It was not as bad as the first two times. I felt bad because I missed two days of work”.

His job as a family advocate has also been important in his recovery process, too. “I learned that my suffering was worth it because now I can help others”.

Every day, Arciniega wakes up early to meditate and takes his medications. He carries a Bible in his satchel to read whenever he has a break. He tries to be well although he continues hearing the voices and having the intrusive thoughts. His parents are supportive and he is very involved with his parish. He admits that he has a chronic illness, just like diabetes, that needs to be taken care of just. "It is hard," he said. After pausing briefly, he added: “The dirty laundry can be washed at home but sometimes it's okay to take it to the laundromat, too.”

To see a video about Pedro’s story, please visit:

[This story was originally published in Excélsior and La Prensa.]