Mental health stigma is the largest community barrier to improving global mental health, and in Latin American cultures, this stigma may be more prevalent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) claim that stigma surrounding mental ill-health is the biggest obstacle in the way of people seeking treatment. Stigma refers to a set of negative, and often unfair or inaccurate, beliefs that society associates with certain circumstances, qualities, or people.

This article will explore what mental health stigma is, why it is a problem in Latin American countries and communities, and how to combat it.

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Mental health stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs that lead to the “devaluing, disgracing, and disfavoring by the general public of individuals with mental illnesses.”

There are three commonly recognized types of mental health stigma:

  • Social or public stigma: This refers to the negative discriminatory beliefs or attitudes about mental health conditions promoted in one’s cultural group or broader society.
  • Self-stigma: This occurs when a person internalizes negative societal attitudes about mental health conditions.
  • Institutional stigma: This refers to governmental or private institutional policies that unintentionally or intentionally discriminate against people with mental health conditions.

Mental health stigma remains a major negative influencing factor in how people both treat and perceive mental health conditions. Some research indicates that in many countries, around 80–90% of people with a mental health condition experience the negative impact of stigma.

Social, cultural, regional, religious, and family beliefs, as well as media portrayals, can influence stigma surrounding mental health conditions. These beliefs are usually due to a combination of ignorance and misinformation, negative attitudes or prejudice, and discrimination.

Learn more about mental health stigma in general here.

Mental health stigma exists everywhere in the world, but it may be particularly strong in Latin American cultures and communities.

One 2016 review analyzing research on mental health stigma found that Latin American cultures tend to hold some similar prejudices toward people with mental health conditions as Western European cultures.

Commonly identified stigmas include ideas that people with mental health conditions are:

  • violent, aggressive, or likely to act bizarrely
  • incapable of getting better
  • dangerous and should be isolated or kept away from the public
  • cannot perform the same activities or duties as others

As detailed below, some specific elements of Latin American culture or society may influence how mental health stigma is set, perceived, and impacted.

Familismo

Several studies suggest that the cultural value of Familismo, or the collective value of family unity, can play a role in shaping and enforcing mental health stigma.

Some researchers claim that this value is associated with increased rates of emotional closeness and openness within the family, which may reduce the impact of mental health stigma.

On the other hand, some research cites family as a major source of discrimination against people with mental health conditions in several Latin American countries. Examples of negative family factors include hostile attitudes from family and extended family, as well as family members underestimating someone’s abilities.

Another study found that most Latin and Hispanic families would deny the presence of depression or another mental health condition in a family member unless they were unable to cope or the symptoms of the condition were life threatening. In the same study, many of the survey participants believed that children’s mental health conditions are due to the sinful behaviors of their parents.

Furthermore, a 2013 study found that the value of Familismo can lead people to hide their condition in order to protect their family. Family members may also discourage people from seeking treatment or taking medications due to a lack of education or spiritual or cultural beliefs.

Taboos

Discussing mental health conditions is also often taboo in Latin American cultures and communities. This means that parents, children, and teachers often do not talk about this topic enough.

Some people may also see it as inappropriate to discuss family affairs outside of the home.

Religion

Faith also seems to play a large role in shaping the stigma that Latin American people may hold about mental health conditions. This makes sense, given that these communities tend to rely on religious institutions as an important spiritual, educational, and social resource.

According to one 2019 study exploring beliefs about mental health conditions in faith-based Latin communities in the United States, religious beliefs may contribute to stigmas by enforcing the misconceptions that:

  • Mental ill-health is a moral failing or spiritual dilemma.
  • Mental ill-health is a spiritual, rather than a medical, condition.
  • Mental ill-health is a punishment or form of divine justice.
  • Depression is due to a lack of faith, not praying enough, sinful behaviors toward parents or others, or demonic influence.
  • Praying and having faith in God can help reduce the risk of or treat mental health conditions.
  • Self-harming acts, such as cutting or suicide, are due to a lack of true faith.

However, the study also points out that, “[w]ith the exception of beliefs about suicide, stigmatizing attitudes were predominantly derived from socialization in participants’ countries of origins rather than religious doctrine per se.”

Other

Latin American communities living abroad may also have reduced access to proper mental healthcare due to the following factors:

  • language barriers
  • a lack of healthcare providers aware of Latin American cultural differences, beliefs, language nuances, or practices
  • a lack of proper insurance
  • poverty
  • a lack of specialized healthcare resources in the community
  • a reduced ability to identify the symptoms of mental ill-health due to a lack of information or understanding
  • legal status or status of loved ones
  • how much someone adjusts and accepts the predominant culture of where they are living

Regardless of the cause, mental health stigma can have negative social, economic, and public implications for people living with mental health conditions. In some cases, this can also reduce or restrict someone’s confidence or ability to access and engage with certain resources, services, or legal rights.

Mental health stigma can also discourage someone from seeking treatment for mental health conditions. However, most of these conditions do improve with treatment — especially early treatment.

According to one 2019 study, Hispanic and Latin populations access mental healthcare 50% less than non-Hispanic white people in the U.S. Also, according to the WHO, around 5% of Latin American adults have depression, though few receive treatment for it.

Some research has also found a very low perceived need for mental healthcare regardless of ill-health severity in Latin or Hispanic communities living in the U.S. However, this perception is not accurate, given that the WHO reports that mental and neurological conditions make up almost one-quarter of the disease burden in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Negative stigma can also make it more difficult for someone with mental ill-health to recover. Additionally, it can also negatively impact those who care for people with mental health conditions, such as their family, friends, or loved ones.

Research suggests that one of the best ways to reduce stigma is to know someone with a mental health condition.

Contact-based interventions, wherein someone engages with a person who has lived experience with mental ill-health, also tend to be much more effective than educational programs or materials. These interventions involve activities such as face-to-face discussions and presentations or reading, listening to, or watching blogs, podcasts, or videos.

Faith-based mental health educational resources may also help reduce stigma in Latin American communities.

To reduce the stigma surrounding mental ill-health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness also recommend:

  • talking openly about mental health
  • educating oneself and others about mental health
  • promoting the idea that physical and mental ill-health are the same
  • being aware of language that may be stigmatizing, such as the terms “crazy,” “insane,” or “psychotic”
  • letting media outlets know when they are promoting negative stigma
  • showing compassion to people with mental health conditions

Stigma surrounding mental health exists globally. However, according to limited available research, this stigma may be especially strong in Latin American countries and communities.

People affected by mental health stigma, either directly or indirectly, may consider addressing this with their loved ones and seeking help from culturally competent mental healthcare professionals.

Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to see a list of campaigns and organizations committed to reducing mental health stigma.