U of I program aims to help Latino students access mental health counseling

May 16, 2014

Getting access to mental health care while away at college can be a challenge for many students. Research shows that's especially true among Latinos on campus. Mental healthcare providers say cultural barriers can prevent many of them from seeking out mental health counseling. Federal data shows the problem is worse for full-time Latino college students. As Illinois Public Radio’s Amanda Tugade reports, a new program at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus aims to change that. 

U of I medical student Franklyn Cabrero first experienced symptoms of anxiety in 2012. A graduate student at the time, he was overwhelmed by pressures from school and family. Cabrero lost his academic advisor and was worried about his future. Then, his grandma in Puerto Rico had a stroke.

“I just wasn’t feeling right. It felt different. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t get hungry. I was losing weight. I started staying at home more,” says Cabrero.

The pressures triggered panic attacks, burnout and anxiety. U of I counselor Alejandro Gomez says Latino students often face additional stress compared to other students.

“I run across a lot of Latinos that had the responsibilities of paying bills, their parents’ and families’ bills, while growing up because a lot of their parents are immigrants and they don’t speak English,” says Gomez.

Data from the Department of Health and Human Services from 2008 shows Latinos over the age of 18 are less likely to receive mental health treatment or counseling than the general public. Gomez says culture and pride often prevent Latino students from reaching out for help.  

“When we’re raised it’s very much stigmatized within the family. And we’re raised that ‘hey, any issues that you have, you have to keep it with the family.’ Don’t talk to any strangers or anyone you don’t know. It serves as kind of a ‘verguenza’ –you know--a kind of shame or it’s embarrassing to the family.”

Alicia Rodriguez, an academic advisor at the Department of Latina/Latino Studies. She says, “We come across a lot of students like this, and we need to do something about it.”

To help students like Cabrero, the department teamed up with La Casa Cultural Latina and created the Latino/Latina Resilience Network. The semester-long program was designed to build a peer-to-peer support system, where students learn about and raise awareness of available mental health resources on and off the campus.

Veronica Kann is La Casa’s assistant director, and has worked alongside Rodriguez. She says one issue is that some Latino students and their families are unaware of mental health services.

“If you look at the neighborhoods that our students are coming from, they’re underserved neighborhoods. There’s not a lot there. So, the families, themselves, don’t have a lot of exposure to these kinds of systems,” says Kann.

That makes it difficult for students to recognize mental health problems, and know where to turn for help Kann says this program creates a safe space for Latino students to open up to each other.

“Social networks are really important to being resilient or to be able to academically succeed in an institutional setting, in particular in a predominantly white institutional setting.”

Franklyn Cabrero, the medical student, says that being Latino on a mostly white campus adds another layer of pressure. 

“Some people are going to believe that you don’t deserve to be there, especially for African American and Latino students that we’re here because of Affirmative Action or because of minority funding. All those perceptions put extra pressure in demonstrating, ‘No, I am here because I deserve to be here,’” says Cabrero.

That can be tough for counselors, teachers, and administrators to or understand if they haven’t experienced it themselves. Javi Ramirez is a U of I student and a coordinator for the Resilience program.

“At times, there’s this lack of cultural competency at this university for students of color who are coming in. They don’t understand that in the Latino culture, that if your mom is sick, you better be there in two hours. It’s not an excuse. If someone’s in the hospital in your immediate family, you just don’t stay in campus. It’s something within our culture. You go back and you’re there for them,” says Ramirez.

Ramirez says taking the “clinical” aspect out of seeking mental healthcare is one of the main objectives of the program.

“Talking about mental health is stigmatized in general. It’s like you tell someone to go to The Counseling Center, they’re first reaction is going to be like ‘well I’m not crazy’. I’m not having my breakdown at 3 in the afternoon after class. I’m having it at 2 in the morning while studying with other students.’ So, then who am I going to talk to at 2am? The students I’m with. You got me? So, it’s kinda like empowering students to have these conversations.”

And that’s the type of support Franklyn Cabrero says students need. He says getting help is a step he made on his own, but it isn’t a journey to be made alone.  That’s what Kann and Rodriguez hope students in this program learn, so that they can overcome their personal and cultural barriers together.