Palabras are Powerful: Talking about Mental Health in the Latinx Community

A group of people sitting outside talking.

You know the saying “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you?” Well whoever wrote that phrase has never met my family. We all have the sharpest rebuttals matched with cutting wit–in English and Spanish no less. Often it’s all in good fun, but some subjects aren’t the easiest to talk about–especially mental health.

Because mental health struggles are often internal, it can create challenges for getting support from family members and friends. Sometimes, with family members who may not have experienced those struggles openly before, their words can hurt more than sticks or stones ever could.

On top of that, when managing mental illness or improving our self-care means changing the way we were taught to live, it can create additional challenges within our families. These changes can seem like living sin vergüenza to our familias.

So how can we talk to them? Luz Collective spoke via email with Yessenia Arias, mental health counselor at Northern Virginia Family Services, about the power in our palabras and how we can help our loved ones adopt a more compassionate and empathetic approach to support.

¡Por que la lengua no tiene huesos pero puede romper huesos!

Arias is a Bolivian-American therapist who works at a non-profit and in private practice. She graduated with her Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Boston College in 2015 and has been working in the D.C./Northern Virginia area for the past four years.

Luz Collective: As a Latinx mental health professional, does language and word choice have a role in helping families understand mental health and mental illness in general?

Arias: Language and word choice are a challenging part of navigating mental health issues, particularly because so much stigma has been attached to mental health. Particularly when we are talking about seeking out mental health care, many people in the Latinx community perceive it as being crazy or going to the “psiquiatra,” language which reflects misunderstanding of the mental health field completely. I find it essential to use words which reflect what seeking out services truly is, which is not being crazy or sick, but rather seeking out support.

Luz Collective: What are some of the things that can occur if language that is hypercritical of seeking out support goes unchecked?

Arias: I think one of the more harmful ways which people speak about mental health issues like depression is in a dismissive manner. I grew up hearing “I don’t let myself get down,” and “you shouldn’t be sad.” To allow dismissive language means other family members who may be struggling with mental health issues are going to feel like these are experiences they should not be having. This is where a person can start feeling negatively and unsure about what they are going through when what they most need is support.

Luz Collective: In Latinx communities, there is a lot of reverence for our elders and the important wisdom they have to pass down. Often that wisdom shapes our values as we become adults. When it comes to mental health, that education is often coming from the younger generations of our families. How can we support those family members as they attempt to share newfound approaches with elders?

Arias: I think it’s important to present our knowledge on mental health in the simplest terms possible, especially when it comes to language and concepts. As a new concept for our elders it is valuable to present these issues in a relatable manner. We all have mental health; we all can understand what it means to feel sad or tired. I would say start there. Start by having conversations about what that family member’s experiences have been when they have been in these types of situations.

Luz Collective: Lots of families gossip, we don’t need a citation to tell us what our primos are whispering about in la sala on Noché Buena. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources regarding the best way to have conversations about mental health with the people you love. But I wanted to ask your advice about how familias speak about mental health when we’re not around, what language should we avoid and what are some culturally accessible alternatives?

Arias: I think it’s important for us to have a good grasp of what mental health truly means. I often take time to inform people of the difference between a psychiatrist, psychologist, and a therapist because they are all used interchangeably but are different aspects of mental health services. I also think this idea of a “manicomio” is outdated and it’s important for us to speak about being hospitalized for what it is, being hospitalized or “getting treatment.” Most importantly, challenging our own trivial use of words like “loco” or “volverse loco.” I think it can sneak into our day to day conversations and it’s important for us to be aware of it when it happens.

Luz Collective: Latinx families often have a strong sense of culture, and willingness to help their families. Some of these cultural norms however, have the potential to become negative if you’re unable to meet those standards. Say you’re unable to get out of bed to clean your room, or even shower, and families are unable to correlate that with depression or anxiety. How do we fight against harsh responses or nicknames?

Arias: This is a constant conversation I have with Latinx clients, particularly parents of children I am working with who are struggling with depression, anxiety, or PTSD. The biggest step we can take is catching ourselves doing it especially because many of us in the Latinx community have grown up with negative connotations of being “lazy.” One thing I aim to do is model and correct. Particularly when I hear relatives speaking about depression like “you can’t let yourself get down.” It is important if we understand these issues and how mental health issues can impact a person that we try to educate others about how this language can be harmful.

“My weapon has always been language, and I’ve always used it, but it has changed,” said author and writer, Sandra Cisneros, in an interview with the Missouri Review. “Instead of shaping the words like knives now, I think they’re flowers, or bridges.” ­We use our words to tell stories, pass down recipes and keep our cultura alive. We can also use our language to keep our loved ones safe, supported, and alive with a new perspective on mental health. That is the power in our palabras.

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