Weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12, where 96% of victims and most survivors were Hispanics, the issue of mental health has taken center stage as one of the most pressing community concerns.
“The perception amongst Hispanics is that people who need mental health services are ‘locos’ or insane,” states Denisse Lamas, a licensed clinical social worker, Executive Director of the Hispanic Family Counseling and Chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention of Central Florida. “There is also a notion that people can overcome depression on their own. [But] just because Latinos are friendly and respectful people does not mean they are willing to talk openly about mental health issues with everyone.”
This stigma is heightened by immigration and acculturation experiences. “Hispanics are overrepresented in the insurance coverage gap in the state of Florida,” explains Zoe Colon, Florida and Southeast Director for the Hispanic Federation. “This contributes significantly to the misinformation around mental health.”
In fact, according to No Estoy Loco/I’m Not Crazy – Understanding the Stigma of Mental Health, a guide by Kramer, Guarnaccia, Resendez, and Lu, the stressors that can accompany immigration such as separation of the family unit, assimilating into a new culture, changing family dynamics, as well economic and sometimes legal status, can aggravate a situation and potentially contribute to mental illness.
Layer in the further complication of sexual orientation and/or gender identification issues, and the Latino community in Central Florida was quite simply rocked to its core.
Within 36 hours of the Orlando shooting, Lamas, Colon and nearly 30 local Latino and LGBTQ community leaders and organizations came together under the umbrella of Somos Orlando, which translates to We Are Orlando. Their mission: to give voice to the Latino/LGBTQ/Latinx community and provide free, culturally competent, long term, wrap around counseling services.
Founding member Sami Haiman-Marrero says, “I immediately knew that the challenges that our Latino and LGBTQ communities would face in the aftermath of the tragedy also included language, cultural and acceptance barriers, because both have been discriminated against - both groups have historically been underserved and scorned by mainstream America. I just couldn’t sit and watch the news.”
“Homophobia is a harsh reality in our community rooted in machismo and marianismo, that is the hypermasculine role and complementary submissive female [role which is supposed to] resemble that of the Madonna [the Virgin Mary],” states Colon.
Lamas says that Latinos often fear ostracization acutely. “Cultural competency is critical to address the aftermath of this tragedy. Having good intentions without the knowledge can be harmful when it comes to crisis intervention.”
She believes that not only it is essential that counselors be bilingual, but it is crucial for a therapist to build rapport via a deep understanding of the person’s culture. “You need to drink a cup of coffee with them, and provide them with a sense of being like family. Our culture is based on trust, building that trust is the foundation of an effective therapeutic relationship.”
Somos Orlando, created from tragedy, is doing just this, and seeing the results with nontraditional forms of mental health such as support groups that allow the Latino community to express their needs in a relaxed, nonclinical environment. Colon adds, “We are a resilient community, rooted in the need to organize and find solace in faith and other culturally-based organizations.”
Even something as simple as making sure materials and outreach efforts printed in Spanish can make a real difference in addressing Hispanic mental health.
But the cost of providing these services is estimated to be $600,000 and finding funding has thus far proven to be an uphill battle. The Hispanic Federation’s Colon: “[We] are struggling to be heard and validated by the mainstream organizations who have credibility and access to resources. We have yet to see what mainstream organizations will learn from [the shooting]. What we know is that our community is in mourning and needs access to services long term and at the hands of qualified bilingual, bicultural service providers rooted in the community and trusted by our people.”
The organization has, however, made an impact with two powerful allies, Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The actors/singers collaborated on a song titled “Love Make the World Go Round,” to benefit Somos Orlando. Both Lopez and Miranda tweeted teasers about the song, and a 30-second preview video is on YouTube. The song will be available for download at iTunes.com/JLO starting today.
Colon says that this support will “allow us to provide long term culturally competent wrap around social and mental health services as well as education to survivors of the massacre and affected community.”