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Report, panel look at mental health challenges among young Latinos

Nikko Gabriel Reynoso, right, speaks along with Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, left, Nicole Plata and Maria Hinojosa at the "Growing Up Latino and Surviving to 25" panel Tuesday at the UC Davis Community Center. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | April 25, 2013 |

A safe and comfortable home life, caring and involved parents, good schools and health care — these are the elements of a happy childhood.

But even when all life’s circumstances are optimal, adolescence can still be an emotional roller coaster featuring peer pressure, relationship issues, anxiety and more.

Consider, then, the added burdens facing Latino youth.

When researchers at the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities (CRHD) did, they found racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States fare far worse than their white counterparts across a range of health indicators, and mental health was no exception.

In fact, Latinos face unique issues when it comes to mental health.

There are often pressures to assimilate, stress from poverty and anxiety over immigration status, all of which, “when left unaddressed and unresolved, can lead to mental health problems,” the report issued last summer said.

Further, “the lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health services … compounded by mental health stigma, keeps many Latinos with mental illness from seeking services.”

There is a culture of silence when it comes to mental health in the Latino community, according to Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a UC Davis professor of clinical internal medicine and founding director of CRHD.

But that can be changed.

On Tuesday, Aguilar-Gaxiola and CRHD colleague Dr. Lina Mendez were part of a panel discussion at UC Davis titled “Growing up Latino and Surviving to 25.”

The discussion, which drew more than 150 people and was moderated by NPR host Maria Hinojosa, also featured three 20-something Latinos who shared their own stories of growing up — and surviving — adolescence in California.

Nikko Gabriel Reynoso, now a third-year UCD student, grew up on San Jose’s east side, in a family that had very little.

“We were kind of poor,” he said. “Sometimes we didn’t have food or would be without a place to live.”

Family members were frequently separated from one another and Reynoso himself suffered both physical and sexual abuse.

“For years I had anxiety and depression,” he said.

Adding to the difficulty of his childhood was the fact that he was transgender, in a very religious family.

“Growing up was very hard,” he said.

Mendez said Reynoso’s story echoed those she’s heard around the state, of Latino LGBT kids going through mental health challenges without many places to turn for help. Whether it’s the stigma of seeing a therapist or simply an inability to pay for one or find one in a rural area, barriers to mental health care are a big issue. The CRHD report found that “limited or no access to mental health services was a significant factor affecting the mental health of the Latino community.”

Nicole Plata is an example of that. Plata, who also grew up in the Bay Area, was diagnosed with depression at the age of 14.

“But I didn’t know what to do with that,” she recalled.

Nobody talked about those things, she said, so she didn’t even know at the time that her father had suffered from depression and other family members had as well. Like Reynoso’s childhood, Plata’s, too, was marked by physical abuse and family crisis.

Claudia Mendez, meanwhile, ended up in foster care by the age of 16 because of abuse at the hands of her mother, a refugee from the civil wars in El Salvador who suffered mental health issues of her own.

“Even though she had therapy, I don’t think she realized she was abusive,” said Mendez, now a student at San Francisco State University.

Aguilar-Gaxiola commended the three young panelists for their openness, saying “you are very brave to share such intimate experiences. It’s going to open doors (on) the cultural silence.”

Rick Gonzales hopes it will do more than that.

Gonzales, a longtime Davis resident and former teacher, told the young panelists, “you are the lucky ones.”

“You made the transition, and I know some kids who never will,” he said.

Gonzales, well-known for his work with the Mexican American Concilio of Yolo County — which provides scholarships for Latino youth to go to college — urged them to take their messages of survival into area schools.

“We need the role models because our kids are just not making it,” he said. “You are survivors, but there are a lot of non-survivors out there.”

To ensure there are more survivors, the CRHD report made a number of recommendations, including increasing school-based mental health programs in order to better reach children; increasing collaboration between schools and social services agencies; using mainstream and Latino media to raise mental health awareness and reduce stigma associated with mental health disorders; and developing a mental health workforce that can overcome language and culture barriers.

Learn more at http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/crhd.

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Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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