In immigrant communities across the country, fear and uncertainty over money, health and the future existed long before the coronavirus pandemic. Now those anxieties are getting worse for many people.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Viridiana Hernandez and other community organizers in Arizona have been making wellness calls day after day to undocumented families in their neighborhoods. People on the other end of the line said they were worried they were going to lose their jobs. Some said they were too scared to go to the hospital.
These calls often end in tears ― further evidence of the stress that has been piling on an already vulnerable community.
“It’s a paralyzing moment,” Hernandez, a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant who works with Poder in Action, told HuffPost. “Our communities are again at the forefront — because we’re the most infected, because historically our neighborhoods haven’t been invested in, don’t have resources, don’t have the infrastructure for our people to be healthy.”
At first, Hernandez didn’t recognize the toll these calls to her neighbors were taking on her. But then she couldn’t sleep and felt like she didn’t have the energy to get out of bed and shower. It hit her how much her neighbors’ pain had become her own.
How the pandemic disproportionately affects mental health in Latinx communities
As the pandemic rages on, Latinx communities like Hernandez’s struggle under its unrelenting effects.
Roughly 30 million Americans overall have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March, while many navigate the pandemic without health insurance. But Latinx people are more likely to have lost their jobs, less likely to be able to work from home and less likely to have health insurance than white people. COVID-19 is also killing Latinx people at up to three times the rate that it’s killing white people in some parts of the country.
These conditions have put a strain not only on the Latinx community’s physical and financial health but also on their mental health as people try to cope with the loss and pain of the pandemic.
Hernandez said that her experience with insomnia and stress is not unique and that the collective trauma of social and political inequities is heightened now.
“I do a lot of work with the families directly, so we hear that they’re not being able to sleep, they’re losing hair, they’re not eating,” Hernandez said. “All of these things are not healthy.”
The crisis has underscored the widespread need for better mental health care among this group, especially given how many of them are essential workers.
“Many members of our community are the ones keeping the stores stocked with all the groceries,” said Monica Villalta, the director of inclusion and diversity officer at the National Alliance for Mental Illness. “They’re the ones delivering products to your door. Many are still at construction sites. They’re also in many hospitals and medical clinics providing services. If we’re not taking care of the health of Latinos, then we’re not taking care of the health of everyone in the community.”
“If we’re not taking care of the health of Latinos, then we’re not taking care of the health of everyone in the community.”
– Monica Villalta of the National Alliance for Mental Illness
For many Brown and Black folks across the country, heightened uncertainty about the future is causing feelings of anxiety and depression.
According to the Pew Research Center, Latinx people are more likely than others to be concerned about the coronavirus’s threat to their health, finances and livelihoods. They’re also twice as likely to view the pandemic as a major threat to their well-being. One Pew study found that roughly half of Hispanic and Latinx people said they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut or lost a job ― or both ― because of the virus, compared with 33% of all U.S. adults.
A lot of scientific evidence shows that recessions and their effects — “unemployment, income loss, financial strain and deprivation” ― are “significantly associated with poor mental health,” Margarita Alegria, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the disparities research unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said at a press conference on April 24.
“This is an opportunity to really be prepared and be sure we address the needs of the Latino and minority families,” she continued
Many people in the Latinx community are also undocumented, meaning that even though they collectively pay billions of dollars in taxes and contribute to the economy, they won’t receive any emergency financial or medical assistance from the federal government. California has been the only state thus far to attempt to fill the gap by creating its own fund for undocumented workers.
In Arizona, where Hernandez lives, the 10-year anniversary last month of perhaps the most anti-immigration legislation in recent memory ― SB 1070 ― hit home with many undocumented people. Among other provisions, SB 1070 allowed police officers to check a person’s immigration status if they had “reasonable suspicion” that the person was in the U.S. without documents. Today’s stay-at-home orders bring back eerie memories of life as an immigrant without papers when the state law, now largely gutted in court, was implemented.
Hernandez, who only received her legal permanent residentship in recent years, recalls not wanting to leave the house due to later-removed sections of the law that made it a criminal offense for other people to lend undocumented folks a hand in certain circumstances. She said it caused genuine fear in her when she was younger, and she recognizes those same feelings of fear right now in many undocumented people she has spoken to.
In addition, good Spanish-language resources about COVID-19 can be hard to find. Language barriers have hindered Spanish-speaking people from fully grasping the guidance about curbing the spread of the virus and implementing social distancing, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. And because of the lack of Spanish-language mental health services in the U.S., finding that kind of aid can prove challenging.
“Latinx people carry in their DNA a lot of intergenerational trauma,” said Francisca Porchas, founder of the Latinx Therapists Action Network and host of La Cura podcast. “Political conditions, from racism to poverty to colonial violence, migration — it all comes with that. … And we’re going to feel the effects of this moment on our mental health for a long time. How we tend to our systems in this moment is going to dictate the environment our family is in.”
“We’re going to feel the effects of this moment on our mental health for a long time. How we tend to our systems in this moment is going to dictate the environment our family is in.”
– Francisca Porchas of the Latinx Therapists Action Network
Mental health care is a touchy topic for many in the Latinx community. Machismo and the cultural stigma around mental illness can stop folks from reaching out, talking openly about their emotions and getting help. Non-Hispanic white people received mental health treatment twice as often as Hispanic people did in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Social and economic inequities, Villalta said, may also affect how authorities in health care are perceived. Impoverished or marginalized people may distrust these institutions and thus won’t reach out for help.
“We know that the virus does not discriminate, people and systems do,” Villalta said. “We now see that the neglect of providing culturally competent, linguistically flexible services has resulted in increased rates of mortality for African Americans and Latinx people.”
Where the Latinx community can get mental health advice
Despite these challenges, there are resources out there that can help. The National Alliance on Mental Health has created a Spanish-language guide, “COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Informacion Y Recursos.” The Mayo Clinic also has a guide on managing stress, “Meditación: Una manera simple y rápida de reducir el estrés.” For Latinas facing domestic violence while sheltering in place, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has Spanish-language content to help: “Mantenerse segurx durante COVID-19.”
The Latinx Therapists Action Network can also connect people who are seeking services with its directory of available Latinx therapists. These services can be found in English y en español.
It might be hard at first, but getting help is always the better option, Porchas said, because mental wellness is just as important as physical wellness.
And without the aid of many local governments and authorities to address the struggles of marginalized communities, the onus is on Latinx individuals to find the help they need in the midst of the crisis.
“This is beyond the cultural issues ― and some people are going to make it look like that, like the virus affects African Americans and Latinos more to some deficit of our own — it’s not that,” Villalta said. “It’s years of neglect and cutting of public health resources.”
Porchas and Hernandez agree that resilience is a big part of Latinx identities, but they say the community shouldn’t have to rely on that alone to deal with the pandemic.
“I’ve seen people’s anger and frustration,” Hernandez said. “But there’s also this urgency and clarity around the ways that this country has always disposed of poor people, working-class people, Black and Brown people.”
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