Latin Americans and Mental Health

Latin Americans and Mental Health





The Spanish language and culture are common bonds for many Hispanic Americans, regardless of whether they trace their ancestry to Africa, Asia, Europe, or the Americas. The immigrant experience is another common bond. Nevertheless, Hispanic Americans are very heterogeneous in the circumstances of their migration and in other characteristics. To understand their mental health needs, it is important to examine both the shared and unique experiences of different groups of Hispanic Americans. Reprinted From

Hable. Ellos escuchan

La Semana Nacional de Prevención

Spanish-Language Resources (PDF |674 KB) Este recurso proporciona una lista de recursos selectos de SAMHSA disponibles en español y/o inglés que son desarrollados para la población hispana/latina. (This resource provides a listing of selected SAMHSA resources available in Spanish and/or English that are developed for the Hispanic/Latino population).

Depresión en madres: Más que tristeza (Depression in Mothers: More than the Blues). Muchas madres luchan diariamente con la depresión y muchas de ellas ni siquiera saben que están deprimidas. Este kit de herramientas está diseñado para los proveedores comunitarios, incluyendo los que trabajan en programas de visitas al hogar; los trabajadores del programa WIC; y el personal de Head Start Temprano, Head Start y otros programas de cuidado de niños. (This toolkit equips providers with information about depression, and offers strategies in working with mothers who may be depressed. The toolkit includes resources, referrals and handouts for depression, and screening tools for more serious depression).


The Need for Mental Health Care

Historical and Sociocultural Factors That Relate to Mental Health

Historical and sociocultural factors suggest that, as a group, Latinos are in great need of mental health services. Latinos, on average, have relatively low educational and economic status. In addition, historical and social subgroup differences create differential needs within Latino groups. Central Americans may be in particular need of mental health services given the trauma experienced in their home countries. Puerto Rican and Mexican American children and adults may be at a higher risk than Cuban Americans for mental health problems, given their lower educational and economic resources. Recent immigrants of all backgrounds, who are adapting to the United States, are likely to experience a different set of stressors than long-term Hispanic residents.

Key Issues for Understanding the Research

Much of our current understanding of the mental health status of Latinos, particularly among adult populations, is derived from epidemiological studies of prevalence rates of mental disorders, diagnostic entities established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(). The advantage of focusing on rates of disorders is that such findings can be compared with and contrasted to findings from studies in other domains (e.g., clinical studies) using the same diagnostic criteria. In addition, diagnostic entities are now often associated with specific pharmacological and psychosocial treatments.

Although there are several advantages to examining DSM-based clinical entities, there are at least three disadvantages. One limitation is that individuals may experience considerable distress-a level of distress that disrupts their daily functioning-but the symptoms associated with the distress fall short of a given diagnostic threshold. Thus, if only disorder criteria are used, some individuals’ need for mental health care may not be recognized. A second disadvantage is that the current definitions of the diagnostic entities have little flexibility to take into account culturally patterned forms of distress and disorder. As a result, disorders in need of treatment may not be recognized or may be mislabeled. A third limitation is that most of the epidemiological studies using the disorder-based definitions are conducted in community household surveys. They fail to include non household members, such as persons without homes or those who reside in institutions. Because of these limitations, it is important to broaden the review of research on mental health needs to include not only studies that report on disorders, but also studies that report on symptoms, symptom clusters, culturally patterned expressions of distress and disorder, and high-need populations not usually included in household-based surveys.

Mental Disorders


As noted in previous chapters, researchers have conducted two large-scale studies to identify the rates of psychiatric disorders among adults in the United States. The first, the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study (ECA) (), examined rates of psychiatric disorders in five communities (= 19,182): New Haven, Baltimore, St Louis, Durham, and Los Angeles. Investigators at the Los Angeles site conducted interviews in English and Spanish and oversampled Mexican Americans (= 1,243), so that rates of psychiatric disorders in this subpopulation could be estimated (). The second study, the National Comorbidity Study (NCS) (), examined psychiatric disorders in a representative sample of individuals living throughout the United States (= 8,098), excluding Alaska and Hawaii. This survey included Hispanics (= 719), but was conducted only in English; thus, Spanish-speaking Hispanics were not represented ().

The ECA study found that Mexican Americans and white Americans had very similar rates of psychiatric disorders (). However, when the Mexican American group was separated into two sub-groups, those born in Mexico and those born in the United States, it was found that those born in the United States had higher rates of depression and phobias than those born in Mexico (). The NCS found that relative to whites, Mexican Americans had fewer lifetime disorders overall and fewer anxiety and substance use disorders. Like the Los Angeles ECA findings, Mexican Americans born outside the United States were found to have lower prevalence rates of any lifetime disorders than Mexican Americans born in the United States. Relative to whites, the lifetime prevalence rates did not differ for Puerto Ricans, nor for “Other Hispanics.” However, the sample sizes of the latter two subgroups were quite small, thus limiting the statistical power to detect group differences ().

A third study examined rates of psychiatric disorders in a large sample of Mexican Americans residing in Fresno County, California (). This study found that the lifetime rates of mental disorders among Mexican American immigrants born in Mexico were remarkably lower than the rates of mental disorders among Mexican Americans born in the United States. Overall, approximately 25 percent of the Mexican immigrants had some disorder (including both mental disorders and substance abuse), whereas 48 percent of the U.S.-born Mexican Americans had a disorder (). Furthermore, the length of time that these Latinos had spent in the United States appeared to be an important factor in the development of mental disorders. Immigrants who had lived in the United States for at least 13 years had higher prevalence rates of disorders than those who had lived in the United States fewer than 13 years ().

It is interesting to note that the mental disorder prevalence rates of U.S.-born Mexican Americans closely resembled the rates among the general U.S. population. In contrast, the Mexican-born Fresno residents’ lower prevalence rates were similar to those found in a Mexico City study (e.g., for any affective disorder: Fresno, 8 %, Mexico City, 9 %) (). Together, the results from the ECA, the NCS, and the Fresno studies suggest that Mexican-born Latinos have better mental health than do U.S.-born Mexican Americans and the national sample overall.

A similar pattern has been found in other sets of studies. One study examined the mental health of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who were seen in family practice settings in two towns equidistant from the Mexican border (). This investigation found that 8 percent of the Mexican American participants had experienced a lifetime episode of depression, whereas only 4 percent of Mexican participants had. A group of earlier studies conducted in the mid-1980s also examined rates of depression in English- and Spanish-speaking Latinos, including Cuban Americans (= 857) in Miami (); Mexican Americans (= 3,118) in the Southwest (); Puerto Ricans (= 1,140) in New York City (; and Puerto Ricans (= 1,513) on the island ). One of the most salient findings is that Puerto Ricans from the island had lower rates of lifetime depression (4.6 %) than those from New York City (9 %) .

The most striking finding from the set of adult epidemiological studies using diagnostic measures is that Mexican immigrants, Mexican immigrants who lived fewer than 13 years in the United States, or Puerto Ricans who resided on the island of Puerto Rico had lower prevalence rates of depression and other disorders than did Mexican Americans who were born in the United States, Mexican immigrants who lived in the United States 13 years or more, or Puerto Ricans who lived on the mainland. This consistent pattern of findings across independent investigators, different sites, and two Latino subgroups (Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) suggests that factors associated with living in the United States are related to an increased risk of mental disorders.

Some authors have interpreted these findings as suggesting that acculturation may lead to an increased risk of mental disorders e.g., . The limitation of this explanation is that none of the noted epidemiological studies directly tested whether acculturation and prevalence rates are indeed related. At best, place of birth and number of years living in the United States are proxy measures of acculturation. Moreover, acculturation is a complex process (); it is not clear what aspect or aspects of acculturation could be related to higher rates of disorders. Is it the changing cultural values and practices, the stressors associated with such changes, or negative encounters with American institutions (e.g., schools or employers) that underlie some of the different prevalence rates ()? Before acculturation can be accepted as an explanation for this observed pattern of findings, it is important that direct tests of specific acculturation processes be carried out and that alternative explanations for these findings be ruled out. Longitudinal research would be especially helpful in identifying the key predictors of Latinos’ mental health and mental illness.

Children and Youth

Most epidemiological studies of Latino children and adolescents have been conducted with symptom indices and problem behavior checklists, not diagnostic instruments. Efforts to study diagnostic entities among Latino children in community samples have been limited. In one study carried out in Puerto Rico, psychiatrists administered a standard diagnostic instrument, the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (DISC), and found high rates of mental disorders (49 %) among Puerto Rican children who had previously been identified as having significant behavioral problems. However, the rate dropped to 18 percent when a diagnosis with some associated impairment was required (). The importance of including impairment as a criterion for disorders in children was established in another recent study. Children living in Georgia, Connecticut, New York, and Puerto Rico were assessed to establish rates of mental disorders; the Puerto Rican children had rates comparable to the multiethnic sample from the U.S mainland (). For all groups, rates of disorders dropped dramatically when impairment was required as part of the diagnosis.

An examination of studies of mental health problems reveals a generally consistent pattern: Latino youth experience a significant number of mental health problems, and in most cases, more problems than whites. Studies of child mental health problems typically used versions or portions of a popular screening instrument, the Childhood Behavior Checklist (CBCL, Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1983).  found that Hispanic children in middle schools, specifically Mexican-origin youth from Texas, reported more anxiety-related problem behaviors than white students. In addition, Hispanic sixth- and seventh-graders from a Southwestern city reported more delinquency-type problem behaviors than white students (). Youth in Puerto Rico were also found to have a significantly higher total problem score (35% versus 20%) and prevalence rate of “cases” (36% versus 9 %) than a three-State sample comprised primarily of whites (). A study of Hispanic 10- to 16-year-old boys in Dade County, Florida, was the only exception. This investigation did not reveal any differences in total problem behaviors when comparing Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, and African American boys ().

Studies of depressive symptoms and disorders also revealed more distress among Hispanic children and adolescents, particularly among Mexican-origin youth. This was evident in a community study in Las Cruces, New Mexico (), as well as in a national study within the 48 coterminous States (). In both these investigations, Mexican American adolescents reported more depressive symptoms than did white adolescents. In a recent study that used a self-report measure of major depression among middle school (grades 6-8) students in Houston, Texas, Mexican American youth were found to have a significantly higher rate of depression than white youth (12 % versus 6 %) (). These findings held even when level of impairment and sociodemographic factors were taken into account.

A large-scale survey of primarily Mexican American adolescents in schools on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border revealed high rates of depressive symptoms, drug use, and suicide (). Like the adult epidemiological studies, this investigation found that living in the United States is related to elevated risk for mental health problems. More Texas youth (48 %) reported high rates of depressive symptoms than did Mexican youth (39 %). Also, youth residing in Texas reported more illicit drug use in the last 30 days (21 %) and more suicidal ideation (23 %) than youth residing in Mexico.

Together the data indicate that Latino children and adolescents are at significant risk for mental health problems, and in many cases at greater risk than white children. At this time, it is not clear why a differential rate of mental health problems exists for Latino and white children. Special attention should be directed to the study of Latino youth, as they may be both the most vulnerable and the most amenable to prevention and intervention.