The storyline is all too familiar. A young woman experiences physical and sexual abuse in her family and realizes the need to flee the situation. The pattern of abuse repeats when the woman marries all too young and dependent and has children with her abusive, hard-drinking husband. Eventually, the woman leaves her husband and country of origin to make the dangerous crossing into the United States to create a better life for her children. Unfortunately, any good family connections and resources were left behind as well.
It is men, women and children like this that end up in the offices of El Centro de la Familia, the Spanish-speaking component of the Mental Health Center of Denver. At El Centro, Adult Psychiatrist Dr. Kristin Riley-Lazo, finds cultural distinctions between the immigrant population she now serves and other populations she has served in the past throughout the metro area.
For starters, approximately 70 percent of her patients prefer to speak only Spanish in session. The younger and more acculturated, the more speaking English enters into treatment. As is reflected in the larger Latino community in Colorado, most of Lazo’s patients are from northern and central Mexican states like Durango, Chihuahua, Zacatecas and Guanajuato. Rural areas are especially overrepresented – nearly 9 of 10 hail from smaller towns, farms and ranchos.
Progressive Views on Health
As in most communities, there is a stigma in the Spanish-speaking Latino community against those seeking mental health services. However, by the time they walk through the doors of El Centro, folks realize they need help. Lazo credits those Latinos seeking mental health services as more progressive and integrative regarding health than the general population, “My clients are open to the nexus between the physical and the mental. They may express their depression or anxiety with a physical description or emotional distress by explaining they have ‘Nervios’, a catchall physical symptom.” According to Lazo, the general population is much more likely to separate their mental health from their physical health.
Lazo also observes a high incidence of displacement issues that occur in immigrant communities. “Social stressors that are very unique to the immigrant community include the fear of deportation, issues around documentation, fleeing abusive relationships and living in new communities without the support or resources of traditional family. Often, these challenges form the basis for why people seek treatment,” according to Lazo. Many of these issues are faced by children living in a strange land with relatives they have never met and with whom they share much less of a connection.
Finally, the vigorous work ethic and desire to improve conditions for their families in the immigrant population continues to permeate behavior for those seeking mental health services. “So many of my clients want treatment so they can continue to work. They feel they can’t afford to be depressed – they have kids to take care of and their work ethic spills over into an incentive to get treatment,” reports Lazo.
As for the woman described in the opening paragraph, she’s doing much better. Knowing she has to take care of herself in order to provide for her family, she has not only continued treatment for mental health but also made behavioral changes regarding nutrition, exercise and employment. Fitness classes, healthy shakes, cooking classes and learning English for work, are all part of her weekly regimen. She is determined to break the cycle of abuse for her own children and providing them a more consistent, and safe upbringing. For Dr. Lazo, “Women like this are taking responsibility for not repeating the cycle. She has had to create an entirely new social structure. She is an inspiration.”