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U Of I Mental Health Program Aims To Address Needs Of Latinos

This story was reported as part of our series “Unmet Needs: Living with mental illness in central Illinois.”

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Getting access to mental health care while away at college can be a challenge for many students. Research shows that’s especially true among Latinos on college campuses. 

Mental healthcare providers say cultural barriers can prevent many of them from seeking out mental health counseling. Federal data shows the problem is worse for full-time Latino college students. A new program on the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus aims to change that.

U of I medical student Franklyn Cabrero first experienced symptoms of anxiety in 2012. A graduate student at the time, he was overwhelmed by pressures from school and family. Cabrero lost his academic advisor and was worried about his future. Then, his grandma in Puerto Rico had a stroke.

“I just wasn’t feeling right,” Cabrero said. “It felt different. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t get hungry. I was losing weight. I started staying at home more.”

The pressures triggered panic attacks, burnout and anxiety. U of I counselor Alejandro Gomez said Latino students often face additional stress compared to other students.

“I run across a lot of Latinos that had the responsibilities of paying bills, their parents’ and families’ bills, while growing up because a lot of their parents are immigrants and they don’t speak English,” Gomez said.

Data from the Department of Health and Human Services from 2008 shows Latinos over the age of 18 are less likely to receive mental health treatment or counseling than the general public. Gomez said culture and pride often prevent Latino students from reaching out for help.  

“When we’re raised it’s very much stigmatized within the family,” Gomez added. “And we’re raised that ‘hey, any issues that you have, you have to keep it with the family.’ Don’t talk to any strangers or anyone you don’t know. It serves as kind of a ‘verguenza’ –you know--a kind of shame or it’s embarrassing to the family.”

“We come across a lot of students like this,” said Alicia Rodriguez, an academic advisor at the Department of Latina/Latino Studies. “We need to do something about it because some of them are getting services from the campus resources like The Counseling Center, McKinley Health Center, DRES, etc. Others aren’t.”

To help students like Cabrero, the department teamed up with La Casa Cultural Latina and created the Latina/o Resilience Network. The semester-long program was designed to build a peer-to-peer support system, where students learn about and raise awareness of available mental health resources on and off the campus.

Veronica Kann is La Casa’s assistant director, and she has worked alongside Rodriguez. She said one issue is that some Latino students and their families are unaware of mental health services.

“If you look at the neighborhoods that our students are coming from, they’re underserved neighborhoods,” Kann said. “There’s not a lot there. So, the families, themselves, don’t have a lot of exposure to these kinds of systems.”

That makes it difficult for students to recognize mental health problems, and know where to turn for help. Kann said this program creates a safe space for Latino students to open up to each other.

“Social networks are really important to being resilient or to be able to academically succeed in an institutional setting, in particular in a predominantly white institutional setting,” she said.

Franklyn Cabrero, the medical student, said that being Latino on a mostly white campus adds another layer of pressure. 

“Some people are going to believe that you don’t deserve to be there, especially for African American and Latino students that we’re here because of Affirmative Action or because of minority funding,” Cabrero said. “All those perceptions put extra pressure in demonstrating, ‘No, I am here because I deserve to be here.’”

That can be tough for counselors, teachers, and administrators to or understand if they haven’t experienced it themselves. Javi Ramirez is a U of I student and a coordinator for the Resilience program.

“At times, there’s this lack of cultural competency at this university for students of color who are coming in,” Ramirez said. “They don’t understand that in the Latino culture, that if your mom is sick, you better be there in two hours. It’s not an excuse. If someone’s in the hospital in your immediate family, you just don’t stay in campus. It’s something within our culture. You go back and you’re there for them.”

Ramirez said taking the “clinical” aspect out of seeking mental healthcare is one of the main objectives of the program.

“Talking about mental health is stigmatized in general,” Ramirez said. “It’s like you tell someone to go to The Counseling Center, they’re first reaction is going to be like ‘well I’m not crazy’. I’m not having my breakdown at 3 in the afternoon after class. I’m having it at 2 in the morning while studying with other students.’ So, then who am I going to talk to at 2 am? The students I’m with. You got me? So, it’s kinda like empowering students to have these conversations.”

U of I student Erica Manzo completed the Resilience program and recently received her certificate. Students are taught to be aware of their peers’ needs, provide them information and be their support. Those tools enabled Manzo to help a close friend through a tough time.  

“For me, it was … just understanding that it’s more of a listening thing,” Manzo explained. “You have to listen. You can’t really give ‘advice’ but just understand what kind of resources there is and just kind of helping out—like ‘oh you should seek this person’ or ‘this is where you should go.’”

That is the type of support Cabrero said students need. He said getting help is a step he made on his own, but it isn’t a journey to be made alone. His message to students:  if you think you need help, ask for it.

“It’s OK to do it. It actually makes you stronger,” Cabrero said. “It actually makes you a stronger individual than what people think.”

That is what Kann and Rodriguez hope students in this program will learn, so that they can overcome their personal and cultural barriers together.

Categories: Mental Health