Latina/o Mental Health

Latina/o Mental Health

Reducing Stigma and Humanizing Communities

As our nation’s demographics shift, the need to revisit and reexamine our therapeutic, educational, and professional approaches becomes critical. In particular, as Latina/o communities have become the largest ethno-cultural communities in the nation and in many locations no longer occupy a minority status, our attention and reexamination should begin with these communities.

Shifting Lenses

According to the most recent census figures, Latinas/os represent 16 percent of the total U.S. population (50.5 million), now comprising the largest racial/ethnic group in the United States. People of Mexican descent comprise the majority at 64 percent, followed by Puerto Ricans at 9 percent, Central Americans at 7.6 percent, and “Other” Latinas/os, such as South Americans, Dominicans, and Cubans represent 7.7 percent, 5.5 percent and 3.4 percent respectively. Future projections suggest that by the year 2040, Latinos will comprise 22 percent of the total U.S. population. That’s 87.6 million people.

Southern California’s Latina/o community also continues to grow. Within Orange County alone, from 2000 to 2010, the Latina/o population grew by 15.7 percent. In sharp contrast, the mental health resources targeted to this population are very much inadequate. Not only are Latina/o communities underserved due to the lack of culturally and linguistically responsive providers, but the exclusively Spanish-speaking communities are widely unserved in Southern California in the field of mental health. The Latina/o community has been identified as a high-risk group for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. According to both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control, adult Latinas/os have higher percentages of serious psychological distress than most other racial and ethnic groups. Some additional challenges include language barriers, inaccurate mental-disorder diagnoses, long-term persistence of psychiatric disorders, lower mental health utilization rates, Latina/o communities’ association of substantial stigma with disclosure of mental health problems, potential communication problems due to cultural differences between provider and client, and biases and prejudicial perspectives on the part of systems of care.

These challenges shed light on potential limitations of traditional methods and systems of interventions developed under a culture-bound value system—a value system that is oftentimes inconsistent with Latina/o community values. Nowhere is our discussion of shifting perspectives, reducing stigma, and becoming more aware of assumptions and biases more salient then when examining our immigration debates in the United States.


The discussion on immigration in the United States has two sides. In one discussion, our borders are boundless in our willingness, and need, to exchange goods and services internationally and to encourage free trade. Simultaneously, the other discussion encourages controlled borders, restricted migration flow, and increased levels of policing and militarization. The psychological impact these dialectical perspectives have on Latina/o communities nationally, and statewide, are often misguided and misunderstood. Ian Davis notes in a 2009 Journal of Business Ethics article that it is critical for our understanding of borders to extend the physical and geographical to also include the mental and psychological. Our immigration histories and current realities indicate such and our future is dependent upon us moving forward together. Before we can address the needs of Latina/o communities, we must assess our own assumptions and biases about these communities.

Perceptions of low social status, life in unsafe neighborhoods, and experiencing ethnic discrimination all play an important role in the increased risk for psychological challenges among many Latina/o immigrants. Symptoms such as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic illnesses, and behavior problems can appear at any point in time for family members, including at the time of departure, during the migration process, at the time of a life-cycle event (death, divorce), and during reunions among separated family members. The process of serial migration, or the “step-wise” manner in which families often migrate can have detrimental effects on both the children and parents. It is not uncommon for one parent to migrate first, leaving mom and children behind or for both parents to migrate first, leaving children with grandparents or extended family. Consequently, children may leave their country of origin together to reunite with parents or leave separately depending on the circumstances of the family and country of origin. This process could take months or years. One consequence of this process is that family relationships can become strained; siblings may differ in acculturation levels, intergenerational differences may create conflict between parents and children, and conflict may arise between the parents as gender roles potentially shift, post-migration.

In order to create an academic environment where students are trained to meet the needs of underserved Latina/o communities and develop policies and programs that shift the traditional lens, we must begin by assessing our individual and communal biases and assumptions. Our students, the community at large, and our future depend on it.

To address these needs, Pepperdine has created Aliento, the Center for Latina/o Communities. Aliento is dedicated to addressing the individual and communal mental health needs of Latina/o communities. Aliento is Spanish for “breath,” and the center’s overall purpose is to help people lead healthy and fulfilling lives, and to help communities “breathe better.” The center’s three main components are: community-based research, outreach, and education.

Additionally, beginning in 2013, GSEP will offer the Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy with Latinas/os.

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