National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) New Jersey volunteer Rita Rivas’ niece was diagnosed with clinical schizophrenia in 1998 at the age of 13. At first, the family thought she was a normal teenager going through normal changes, but her condition worsened.
The teen’s family refused to accept it as anything other than growing pains until she had an episode which required a 911 call, Rivas said. Her niece is now institutionalized, but has the proper medication and doctors to best ensure her quality of life.
“It takes acceptance as a family and a community to help those who are afflicted,” Rivas said. “We would have been able to accomplish a lot more a lot more quickly than if we were divided.”
Almost everyone knows someone who suffers from a mental illness, NAMI N.J. en Español Director Martha Silva explained. In her case, both her son and her mother suffer.
“It takes acceptance as a family and a community to help those who are afflicted [with mental illness].” – Rita Rivas
The statistics may be both surprising and even higher than that, she added, because of the stigma attached to the notion of mental illness as a disease, which oftentimes makes the families of the afflicted ashamed to talk about it.
“Most people keep it quiet,” Silva said. “When people ask how someone is doing, no one will say, ‘Oh, my son is bipolar,’ or ‘My husband is schizophrenic.’ But they will talk about the hardship of dealing with a family member who has diabetes, for example.”
“It’s like having a cold or cancer or any other illness,” Rivas said. “It’s just that with mental illness, you’re dealing with a disease of the mind.”
NAMI N.J. en Español is set to begin a program for families of children at Union City High School in late April, holds community support groups in Union City and West New York, and is recruiting walkers, both Hispanic and non, to join together to unite and help combat the negative stigma on May 12 in Seaside Park.
Mental illness in the Hispanic community
While the stigma associated with mental illness is nationwide, it is even greater in ethnic communities, Rivas said.
Forty-six percent of Latina women suffer from some form of depression, and a reported 19.6 percent of Latino men suffer as well, Silva explained. She suspects the number of men who suffer from depression is higher.
“The problem with men is that they’re not talking,” she said. When she attends medical conferences and places Spanish informational booklets about male depression on the corner of the table, she turns her head for a moment, and when she looks back, the booklets are gone. “The men go by and pick it up quickly. They don’t want to talk about it.”
Much of the reason behind this is lack of education, she said. There are many types of depression, and not all of them are totally incapacitating. And if one is not incapacitated by the disease, people tend to think it’s a weakness or a flaw in character.
“People within the Hispanic community feel they can go to church with their problems, but priests don’t believe in mental illness,” Rivas said. “They prescribe ten ‘Our Father’s and one ‘Hail Mary’ and think you’ll be healed. They don’t know what to do or where to turn, so they write it off as just having a bad day.”
Lost in translation
Part of the problem is the language barrier, Silva explained. During her 11-year term as NAMI’s Hudson County president, she began holding bilingual support groups for families dealing with mental illness, but she felt people weren’t getting everything they needed because of the time spent translating back and forth. So she started her own group in Spanish.
“I became fascinated by the need Latinos had,” Silva said, “mainly because they didn’t speak the language and were unable to get the information that they needed.”
In 2000, NAMI N.J. en Español became official. And in 2007, after volunteering since 1998, Silva was made director.
Getting the word out
On April 24, in conjunction with Union City’s Jose Marti Freshman Academy School Based child services program, Silva will begin a new six week course for parents and family members of children with mental illness. The classes, which will be conducted in Spanish, will teach families about symptoms, medications, self-care, and problem solving skills so they can understand how best to approach the issue.
“Many families don’t understand why the child can’t control the way they behave,” Silva said. “Once they realize that when someone’s brain is out of balance they are no longer able to function, they have a lot more patience and the shame starts to go.”
Silva leads a Spanish self help support group in Union City at 2201 Bergenline Ave. the first Wednesday of every month, and will hold Spanish “Family to Family” classes in West New York at the United Presbyterian Methodist Church.
“It’s wonderful,” Rivas said. “Those who attend Martha’s groups realize there is a place they can go where they will not be judged, and they see other families going through the same thing.”
Walk of solidarity
NAMI N.J. holds a fundraising walk every year for people of all demographics who support those with mental illnesses. Each year the event grows, and this year, both Silva and Rivas hope to build NAMI N.J. en Español teams in order to “build on the Hispanic community so that we can unite and speak as one voice,” Rivas said.
“For Latinos it means a lot because we have to be counted,” Silva said. “They have to know we have needs also, and that there should be racial awareness but unity as well. The feeling of camaraderie between walkers lets people know they’re not alone. They’re not the only one.”
To find out more about Silva’s support groups and the Union City parent classes, call (888) 803-3413 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To join the NAMI walk or even captain a NAMI N.J. en Español team, visit www.nami.org/namiwalks12/NJR/latinosnj.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com