From an early age, Jefferson Vásquez said, he cared for his mother and grandmother, two immigrants from El Salvador, who suffered from health complications for years. That meant he was responsible for accompanying them to the hospital since he was the only person in the household who knew English.
“Being at hospitals for so long made me realize that most employees didn’t look like me or spoke my native language,” Vásquez said. “I remember thinking, aquí, no hay Latinos [there are no Latinos here].”
Vásquez said that spending significant time in the emergency room was a lot to process for a 12-year-old, especially when he learned about what his relatives were suffering from and had to translate the news to them. “I would feel the tension, the emotional part of it. I wanted to explode; mentally, it was frustrating,” he said.
The prevalence of mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in immigrant communities has been a problem that has worsened over the years, especially among children, data show. Immigrant youth frequently experience traumatic events, according to a 2018 study supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Within the general U.S. population before the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC reported that one in every five children had a mental disorder.
But since the beginning of the pandemic, data from the CDC states that emergency department visits related to mental illnesses increased by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those ages 12 to 17 compared with data from 2019. In addition, 71% of parents said the pandemic had worsened their child’s mental health, according to a survey conducted by Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
According to a 2022 report by John Hopkins University’s Centro SOL, an organization that provides research services and advocates policies to improve health opportunities for Latinos within the DMV area, the pandemic also aggravated existing disparities in mental health services. Students who require access to mental health resources, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds like immigrant youth, still have less access to therapists, counselors and school psychologists. As stated in the report, there are significant gaps in Maryland, and addressing them should be a priority for health providers, state and local policymakers.
Vásquez recalls mentioning how depressed he was to his father, who responded by saying “´You’re a man. Toughen up!’ But I couldn’t … I kept on holding it in, but it was so hard for myself and at that moment I didn’t seek help,” the now 18-year-old confesses and adds that over the years he raised awareness of the importance of mental health and looked for psychological resources.
“We don’t believe in mental health as a community, and it’s still a taboo, we don’t even think of finding solutions to the problem,” Vásquez said.
According to Patricia Ríos, board member of Manna Food Center and member of Healthy Montgomery Steering Committee, there’s still a lot of stigma for immigrant families around mental health. Unfortunately, since “their priority is putting food on their table and having a roof over their head, the thoughts about mental health issues don’t become a priority,” she said.
The language barrier is also a substantial problem when discussing and accessing services in mental health for immigrant Hispanic families. “Not only are most services in English and little is offered in Spanish, but also, there are cultural elements that get lost even when you have an interpreter to assist,” adds Gabriela Romo, a licensed clinical counselor focused on the Hispanic community in Montgomery County.
Recognizing the circumstances of immigrant children and their families is essential to address their needs, said Romo. For Latinos, family and community membership are important to their everyday lives. “Partnering with community leaders and schools can be meaningful for the Hispanic culture, especially because they already have the community’s trust,” she adds.
Identity, a nonprofit that provides social and emotional support services to Hispanic youth and families in Maryland, has implemented the practice of “encuentros,” or “gatherings in” English, where families come together and feel part of the community.
“They find a safe space to talk about how they feel. Here, they can speak with someone from their culture and feel heard,” said Identity’s executive director, Diego Uriburu. During the “encuentros,” children can play and spend time together. “Playing itself is extremely therapeutic. Because children’s mental health has often worsened due to the burden of the parents’ problems, they release that stress by playing,” Uriburu said.
Spanish speakers comprise around 86% of Montgomery County Public Schools’ (MCPS) foreign student body. “Our largest international population is the Spanish-speaking one,” said Margarita Bohorquez, supervisor of the International Admissions Office of MCPS. To address the mental health crisis, MCPS has hired and trained multilingual and multicultural health professionals “to meet the needs of these families in a culturally responsive way in their native language,” she said.
Christina Conolly-Chester, MCPS’ director of psychological services, added “we understand that language can be a barrier, so we’ve made efforts to hire bilingual staff and are proud to say we have the largest number of bilingual psychologists in the state of Maryland. We are providing support for all students and ensuring that the overall teaching environment is trauma-informed.”
MCPS is Maryland’s largest school district, with more than 160,000 students.
Vásquez is now a freshman studying psychology with pre-medical classes at Montgomery College and wants to pursue a career in neurology or psychiatry.
“After experiencing what I went through and feeling frustrated when I realized that there were not enough Spanish-speaking therapists, I told myself I want to do this the rest of my life and help my community,” Vásquez said.
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