Growing up in North Philadelphia in a Latino household, we never talked about mental health. But I knew something was off when, at age 15, I stopped wanting to go to school and was feeling depressed. Like many kids, I turned to my mom first — telling her I wanted to talk to somebody. But the Latino community faces a lot of stigmas when it comes to our mental health.
As a community, only 20 percent of us who have symptoms of a psychological disorder will talk to a doctor about our concerns and, even worse, only 10 percent of Latinos will contact a mental-health specialist, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. That’s why it should come as no surprise that my mom’s response was, “you’re just having a bad day. I have bad days, too.” But I wasn’t just having a bad day. Soon enough, I was skipping school on a regular basis and feeling sad all the time.
At my school, Hispanic girls were treated as if we were crazy or bipolar and that it was normal for us to be “spicy.” My school lacked diversity and the counselor, who was a white lady, didn’t understand what I was feeling and kept pushing me to determine the “problem” in my life, as if this were my fault. But my childhood and home life were good; I just needed to talk to somebody.
Recently, I worked with the National Women’s Law Center on its newly released report to figure out a way forward for Latinx students dealing with mental-health issues because, unfortunately, the situation is dire. Currently, 46.8 percent of all U.S. Latina high school girls felt persistently sad or hopeless to the point of being unable to engage in usual life activities, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Philly, the numbers are worse than the national average. Shockingly, just over half (50.9 percent) of Latina girls have felt persistently sad or hopeless, with 22.6 percent considering suicide and a shocking 14.6 percent attempting suicide.
There are many challenges facing our community today, not the least of which are anti-immigrant policies sweeping the nation. According to NWLC’s own Let Her Learn survey, 55 percent of Latina girls are worried about a friend or family member being deported, and 24 percent have been harassed because of our names or country of origin.
But for me, the mental-health stigma was the hardest.
Today, I go to another school and the difference in how each counselor handles mental-health issues is astounding. Not only are there three counselors, including a Hispanic one, but the teachers even look out for their students. I feel as if I can always talk to them because I trust them.
I’d love to see schools incorporate a policy of finding out the mental-health issues of their students before we even need to seek counseling. On the first day of school, we usually write down our names on a paper. What if we also wrote down any mental-health concerns? This way, teachers will be prepared.
It would also be helpful if teachers did a “how are you feeling” every morning or even created a mental-health break space where students can go if we are having an overwhelming day.
There are many other things that schools can do to help support Latina girls, but, most importantly, they should not give up on us. We have high aspirations: 98 percent of us want to graduate high school, and 85 percent of us are interested in college, according to the Listening to Latinas: Barriers to High School Graduation report and the Let Her Learn survey from NWLC and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
While the city — and nation — must do more, I’m glad to see that Philly is already taking steps to reimagine what schools can do for their students. Thanks to my new school, I was able to turn my education around and have been on honor roll every trimester. My education, along with my mental health, is what really counts.