Her voice shaking, Lilia Lopez tearfully described, in Spanish, how her adult daughter seemed to be suffering from depression and anxiety.
Lopez was at a mental health forum Tuesday looking for answers, and she was desperate for help. Doctors allegedly told her daughter, a 39-year-old single mother of two, that nothing could be done.
The community event “Rompiendo el Estigma en Nuestras Communidades y Nuestras Familias” (literally, “Breaking the Stigma in Our Communities and Our Families”) was held in a packed room at Mercado La Paloma near the USC University Park Campus. More than 80 people signed up for it. The room was full of women like Lopez — eager to learn how they could help themselves and loved ones who may have a serious mental illness.
Steven R. Lopez, the professor of psychology and social work at USC who led the workshop, aims to help Latinos recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, break down the stigmas associated with it and encourage dialogue on the thorny issue. Lopez is the director of the La CLAVE campaign, a mental health outreach campaign managed by USC and funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“Latinos relative to other groups tend to use mental health services less, and this is regardless of the problem, whether it’s depression or substance abuse,” said Lopez, who is not related to Lilia. “But it’s not so much Latinos overall, as much as it is Spanish-speaking immigrants and people of Mexican origin.”
The signs of mental illness
Lopez began the workshop, conducted entirely in Spanish, by making attendees feel at ease. He asked where they came from and those in attendance proudly volunteered the information. Lopez talked about his own family and how he, a fifth-generation Mexican-American who grew up in Tucson, Ariz., met his wife at the Claremont Colleges. He spoke about his own personal bouts with mental illness and compared it to other illnesses, like diabetes, and how it should be looked at in the same way — without any negativity or stigma.
He said people often attribute the signs of mental illness to significant life challenges and stress. As a result, they don’t seek professional help. In the Latino community, there’s also the issue of “¿Que van a decir la gente?” (“What will others think?”)
Breaking down stereotypes is an important step, he said. When Lopez asked the group if a stigma exists in the Latino community, there was a collective “¡Sí!”
Help is available
To help explain the symptoms of serious mental illness, the La CLAVE campaign produced two films. In the first, a gossipy woman talks about how a young woman named Olga is seemingly falling apart due to her pending divorce. In a 17-minute film that followed, we see Olga’s character come to life, and with it, the signs of mental illness.
At first, Olga’s mother attributes her delusional thinking, disorganized speech and hallucinations to the stress of her impending divorce. When a neighbor reveals how her son showed similar symptoms, but was successfully treated with medication and therapy, Olga’s mother responds in Spanish, “My daughter is not crazy. She’s just sad and angry.”
The neighbor comforts her and tells her friend there is help for people with mental illness. Toward the end of the film, a crisis is narrowly averted and the family finally comes to terms with the need for Olga to get professional help. Six months later, Olga is seemingly doing well and playing with her young son, surrounded by family and friends.
After showing both films, Lopez quizzed the audience on the signs of illness and went through the signs using “la clave,” which means “key” in English.
C Creencias falsas o ideas delirantes/False beliefs or delusions
L Lenguaje desorganizado/Disorganized speech
Two examples of hallucinations are the following:
V Ver cosas que otros no ven/Seeing things that others do not see
E Escuchar sonidos o voces que otros no escuchan/Hearing sounds or voices that others do not hear
A woman told Lopez that her daughter continuously taps her forehead.
“All of us have weird behaviors,” he said as attendees broke into laughter. “I used to have a mustache that I would chew on. You need to look at other factors. Look deeper. Is it affecting relationships with others? If it’s not, don’t worry.”
When Lilia Lopez asked what she could do to help her daughter, Steven Lopez assured her that there is help — medication and therapy, for example — for those who seek it. He also advised Lilia to motivate her daughter to seek treatment by stressing how it would ultimately benefit her own children to see their mother healthy.
“Now I feel hope,” Lilia said after the forum. “I’m going to tell my daughter that, yes, you can get out of this. There are ways. I’m grateful that I came today.”
To learn more, visit www.UseLaClave.com or call the nearest mental health service center in your community.
The event was hosted and organized by the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute.