Considering the Mental Health of LatinX Immigrants

Yesenia Zelaya-Alem
Bilingual Resident in Counseling
Northern Virginia Family Service
Multicultural Center

Immigrants from all over the world migrate to the U.S. in the hopes of improving their quality of life and the lives of their loved ones. For many LatinX immigrants, their story begins in trauma—it is often why they are fleeing from their country of origin—and dangers remains ever-present during their journey to their new home. These experiences not only effect their mental health, but their entire well-being.

Today is World Mental Health Day which coincides with our celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month through October 15th. As such, this is a good opportunity to consider the mental health of many of our LatinX immigrant clients and neighbors.

The Multicultural Center at Northern Virginia Family Service is one of the few places LatinX immigrants can go to receive services by culturally and linguistically sensitive professionals who strive to assist them in growing beyond the traumas they have experienced.

We commonly encounter stories of domestic violence that have plagued individuals intergenerationally; a history of witnessing and/or experiencing sexual assault, gang and community violence, poverty, politically-motivated violence, occurring in their country of origin.

The hard decision to flee the situations in their home country and make the treacherous journey to the US are often made as a swift response to dangerous, threatening, and dire circumstances. It is a decision driven by the need for safety and survival. These chaotic circumstances leaves them vulnerable to being re-victimized during their migration. Many experience or witness things which cause additional trauma like sexual or physical assault, kidnapping for ransom, travel in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, and desperate hunger for extended periods of time.

Many LatinX immigrants don’t see an end to the difficulties despite successfully settling in Northern Virginia,. They are in desperate need of mental health services to help them process what they have witnessed or experienced.

Unfortunately, there is a cultural stigma to addressing mental health needs. They often also, understandably, suffer from fear of facing their trauma history, making them reticent to seek help. Some have other barriers to receiving care like difficulty securing transportation, or finding the time because of long work hours or pressing child care issues. Others face language and cultural barriers, or have limited options due to lack of education.

In recent years, immigrants have had to cope with the increased threat of travel bans, family separation at the border, public charge, and attempts to limit access to asylum. To flee their home because of lack of safety to then be met with an ongoing sense of insecurity is a powerful stressor. Many of our LatinX immigrant neighbors suffer harassment, often being painted as “illegal,” a term that colors and erodes their self-worth and confidence.

We have all felt the mental health impact of COVID-19 this year, but imagine how it impacts a new immigrant’s life. Due to lockdowns, it has become complicated to obtain mental health services. With the move from in-person to telehealth appointments there are now, also, the hurdles of technology. Many are not familiar with receiving counseling and case management at all, let alone virtually. Some do not have access to the internet, computers, or even private spaces for their confidential therapy sessions.

The pandemic has also increased LatinX immigrants’ worry of becoming critically ill (a higher possibility for a person of color), as well as the sadness and guilt of not being there for sick loved ones in their country of origin. They are navigating the loss of income, not being able to provide for the family, and the unknowns of where to get basic necessities now that they can’t afford to just go to a store and buy them. Some carry the burden of feeling expendable, as they serve as front line workers but have limited access to personal protective equipment or adequate health care.

Taken separately, some of these stressors may be manageable. But the compounding effect is often too much for one person to bear, despite the resourcefulness and resilience of the LatinX community, and the network of support immigrants build for one another.

NVFS’ deploys a wraparound services model that attempts to address the needs of the whole person and, if necessary, their family. This has been one of the cornerstones of our nearly 100-year history, and is implanted by a staff with a wide variety of expertise. Our Multicultural Center is specially-trained to overcome barriers like language, culture, and stigma through their understanding of and response to the unique experiences of each of our clients.

We have programs to help at-risk youth acclimate – to learn how to make better decisions, develop goals, and grow a healthy social circle. Families are supported to ensure that cycles of abuse and educational neglect are severed, ensuring healthy and happy families. Job training opportunities are available, to empower adults to acquire a well-paying career, not just a job. Where appropriate, we provide them with or direct them to financial & rent assistance, food, and hygienic products like shampoo, deodorant, tooth brushes and toothpaste.

NVFS and the Multicultural Center continues to work through these present barriers to support our clients, empowering them to build their resiliency and sense of self-worth. But the need demands a whole-community response.

Why does this matter?

Of course, it is a core value of NVFS to care for and protect all of our neighbors. But it is more than that. In a recent report by One Region Report, they calculated that immigrants contribute $57.7 billion to the local economy.

The impact immigrants have on the culture and commerce of our region is immense. Northern Virginia is stronger because of the diversity of thought, experience, education, perspective, and culture that empower and enrich our country. NVFS is proud to provide LatinX immigrants with the resources and services they need on their journey to wellness and self-sufficiency.

The strongest communities are those that march into the future together, and by recognizing the unique mental health challenges some LatinX immigrants face, we are building a community of dignity and hope that serves to make all of our lives better, together.

To support the NVFS Immigrant Resiliency Fund, please click here. More information about our Multicultural Center is available here.