Cepeda column: Battling the stigma of mental illness | PostIndependent.com

Cepeda column: Battling the stigma of mental illness

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO — July was National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and, well, to be honest, I had no idea.

What’s worse is that the annual campaign started all the way back in 2008, when Congress passed a resolution to improve access to mental health treatment and promote public awareness of mental illness, specifically among people of color.

I learned that this was the culmination of years of work by Bebe Moore Campbell, an author, journalist, teacher and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization that advocates for people of color with mental illness.

Mental. Illness.


The big problem in treating mental illness is the stigma that all people — but especially those from communities of color — face.

And isn’t it clear that the stigma begins with the term “mental illness”?

Who wants to label their mind as being sick or diseased?

Isn’t it less awful to say, for instance, that you have depression, or anxiety, for instance?

I have both, and they are medically diagnosed conditions that would be painful enough to deal with if they weren’t also individually seen as so abnormal in the Hispanic community. Throw on the words “mental illness” and it adds fear.

Hugo Balta, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, encapsulated it perfectly in this tweet: “Latinos are typically taught that to seek out mental health treatment is equivalent to believing that you are loco, or crazy, so it’s nothing that you want to readily admit.” Balta tweeted this in reaction to welcome news that Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont had signed a bill making insurance companies treat mental health issues in his state the same as physical ones.

It’s not that Latinos don’t “believe” in depression, anxiety or any other disorders, but for a long time there weren’t popularly used terms in Spanish for these conditions. And then there’s the immigrant mindset.

Back “home,” there may have been war, poverty, hunger and/or other forms of privation. In this country, we have backbreaking work, language barriers, bigotry, violence and, perhaps, alcohol or drug abuse. But in striving for a better life, these states are taken as a given.

And if you’re the child of immigrants, born in the ultra-rich United States, getting what’s generally considered a world-class education and living in an opulence that is probably unimaginable compared with life in a parent’s native country … well, what in the world do you have to complain about?

At least that was my experience and that of many in my age cohort.

I’ve suffered ­— yes, suffered — from depression and anxiety ever since I can remember. Insomnia, stomachaches, nausea, headaches, eating disorders, crippling worry, repressed gender-identity and sexual-orientation issues … I could go on.

I went undiagnosed until about five years ago, when I finally broke down crying at my general practitioner’s office.

But I had it easy compared with what many kids of color go through today.

Overt racism in public and at school, sometimes from teachers and administrators. The valid feeling — with statistics to back it up — that law enforcement is out to get you. Immigration enforcement raids haphazardly picking people up in their communities. The Trump administration’s inhumane treatment of migrants at the border and attempts to restrict refugees from entering the country. High-stakes testing and the constant drumbeat in our culture of “college for all or your life is over.”

And adults from communities of color have all that plus limited job opportunities (sometimes even with stellar educations under their belts), microaggressions in higher education or at work, possibly crippling student debt or, worse, no college degree at all to serve as a ticket to upward mobility.

Those are all societal stressors and factors that, taken, are too daunting to deal with.

But the issue of requiring that insurance companies provide mental health services to every insured person is just practical preventive care that all insurance providers should be required to offer.

And the disease-preventing power of making mental health services accessible to all — especially low-income people — is also a great investment for federal health and human service dollars.

Sure, in addition to having a crappy name, mental illness is cheaper to ignore in the short run, but government disinvestment in this area is penny-wise and pound foolish.

Combating the stigma of mental illness in all communities, especially those of color, is actually quite simple: Provide them the tools to actually get professional medical care so that people in pain have the opportunity to own their hurts and get help.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda. (c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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