February 18, 2005

Mental illness is a major problem among Latinos

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of San Diego offers programs in Spanish.

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

When it comes to mental illness, the Latino population of San Diego has special needs that are rarely addressed, due to several factors, said Sally Shepherd, director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), San Diego chapter.

There are several reasons why Latinos don’t seek help when it comes to mental illness, Shepherd said, some of these relate to socioeconomic issues.

“The first reason is that they don’t want to talk about mental illness,” she said. “There’s a stigma about this subject in the community.”

Shepherd added that cultural barriers also play a major role.

“There’s a lack of bilingual mental services that might have Latino health representatives. Often there’s a lack of understanding of cultural issues if the health staff is not Latino,” she said.

So, to increase awareness, provide education, and reduce the stigma regarding mental illness in the Latino population, NAMI San Diego is organizing the Latino Task Force.

NAMI San Diego held an introductory kick-off meeting on February 9 to receive feedback from the community in order to offer better services, Shepherd said.

“The meeting was scheduled to find out how best we can serve the Latino community and get feedback from people. Our basic question was: ‘What suggestions do you have to make mental services available to Latinos?’”

In the meeting were present different health organizations and county health officials.

Although NAMI San Diego has one-page fact sheets and brochures about programs in Spanish, and it offers two programs available in Spanish ( Family-to-Family, and a support group), Shepherd said that there’s a real need for Latinos to get involved.

“We don’t have enough trained bilingual teachers. One of our main goals is to get enough bilingual teachers so that they can provide family education about mental illness,” she said.

Shepherd said that the best candidates to become trained teachers at NAMI are volunteers who have a family member with a mental illness.

“It is easier for them to understand what these families are going through,” she said.

Although NAMI doesn’t offer mental health treatment, it has many free services available for the community, including education, guidance, and referral to the proper health treatment.

Getting people educated about mental illness is not an easy task, Shepherd said.

“It’s difficult because people are not comfortable about getting help with mental health problems,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the man-power to tackle all the problems.”

Shepherd said that the NAMI San Diego’s Latino Task Force is just the first step in the process to make Latinos aware of mental illness.

“There’s a real need to tackle the issue of mental illness,” she said. “We need Latinos to come forward and learn about these issues. We understand it might be difficult, but mental health is basic for better quality of life.”

If you are interested in finding out more about NAMI San Diego’s Latino Task Force, call (619) 584-5564, or visit www.namisandiego.org.

Return to the Frontpage