Latino Mental Health

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The immigration protests in Birmingham and around the country have put a very public face on what has traditionally been a very private community. If you ask activists, they'll tell you many Hispanics have been isolated from mainstream society because of cultural reasons -- Fear of authority, language barriers, along with strong -- and sometimes isolating -- family bonds. That's also why domestic violence is such a difficult problem for the community, according to mental health experts working with immigrated hispanics. We sent John Sepulvado into the community to find out what's being done to curb abuse in Latino households.

90.3 WBHM Birmingham–Finished with lunch, and Joseph Lopez is stuck waiting on Lorna road. Joseph —wearing blue jeans, a long sleeved shirt, and a cowboy hat with matching boots— is waiting for his boss, under the shade from a tree by the sidewalk. Joseph estimates he’s already worked about seven hours, and will probably work until the sun goes down if his boss ever comes to pick him back up from lunch. His boss is running so late that some of the men who went out this morning are all ready returning home to their families. But Joseph doesn’t complain—after all, there’s no one for him to come home to he says. His family hasn’t moved here yet. And besides, Joseph says, he’ll trade long lunch breaks in Birmingham to the working conditions in Mexico any day.

Joseph says it was dangerous and his family didn’t get paid much. Here he can send money back to his family, so they can save he says. And when they have enough, Joseph says his family will pay smugglers to bring them over the border. It’s a common practice for many Hispanic families who enter this country illegally. Kathy Casler is a director at Gateway, a Birmingham mental health service provider. Casler says the stress across the border from that trip can linger for years.

“Some of them just had horrific experiences with people taking advantage of them. Abusing them, ya know people they were paying to bring them into the county. Ya know they have some serious post traumatic stress issues.”

According to the National institute for mental health, post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can lead to abuse and violence. And A University of Texas Houston school of Public Health study suggests domestic violence will be found in 20% of newly immigrated Latino immigrant families. That statistic is on par with other ethnic groups throughout the country. But what’s not on par, according to the study, is how few Latino families will seek help compared to other ethnic groups. Why is that? Well, one reason is culture, says Gateway’s Eckart Werther. He heads a Latino Domestic Violence group, and he says the Latino culture is male dominated. Werther explains that some men feel a sense of ownership over their families, and often talk about family members as though they are nothing more than pieces of furniture that should be arranged to the man’s liking.

“You get the guy who you can tell he’s all about power. Just the way he covers the issues in there. And he talks about different topics. The way he addresses his wife or talks about her in the group. Ya know, MY home, MY family MY wife. And you get the guy who that, maybe he had a couple drinks and a bad day at work, not to make excuses for anything that they’ve done. But you hear all the stories.”

Werther says the reasons for abuse might vary. But the response from Latinas is often the same. They don’t come forward. So why is that? Well, again it’s cultural, says Isabel Rubio of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama – or HICA.

“In the Latino Community, often times the women stay home, take care of the house and the family, and so they become isolated from the broader community.”

Not only do the women find themselves alone, Rubio says, they’re trying to navigate new customs and norms.

“They don’t really know how to acclimate themselves here. It’s no secret that in Latin American communities’ law enforcement is often very corrupt. And so here, you see anybody in uniform, they get suspicious — can they put me in jail can they deport me. And not knowing who to trust, that takes a real toll psychologically on people.”

Rubio says that’s important because if women don’t feel they can trust the authorities, they won’t report the abuse. Counselors say that can embolden the men which could escalate the violence. But even if hispanic women did report the abuse, Rubio acknowledges the system is woefully underprepared to help latina’s with their domestic violence problems.

Oasis Women's Counseling Center
“There’s a really big need for comprehensive services for Latina victims of domestic violence. We have worked very hard to partner with community resources to do the mental health counseling piece. We have worked very hard with them to make sure we are all providing culturally appropriate services.”

You’re inside a weekly women’s group, sponsored by HICA and local mental health provider Oasis. And while the focus isn’t always on surviving abuse, Rubio says resources are often used to help women overcome domestic violence.

“All the way from we’re just helping them understand where they can get help in terms of become safe in the crisis situation. To getting the mental health services that they need. To brokering the court system. And once all the legal and immediate issues are taken care of, then helping women learn to stand on their own two feet and so forth.”

But the group doesn”t just teach women how to be free from abuse. Rubio says it also reminds them how to have fun.

“It’s certainly not always a serious, somber meeting. Most of the time that the women get together is very upbeat and lively. The women love to have parties for one another. If one of the women is expecting a baby, they always have a baby shower. Christmas party, birthday parties, Halloween they had a fabulous party where they all dressed up. It’s really great to see people integrating into the community, making friends and planning things as a group.”

Rubio says providing the women with a social outlet helps reinforce norms that might be forgotten when the women are alone. So by hearing stories of how others in the group are living, women can judge how their situation stacks up. Having that support system is vital, Rubio says. Eckart Werther agrees and adds that providers have to have a consistent presence in the community if domestic violence rates are going to be curbed.

“Because that Hispanic community is a relationship community. You have to build that relationship, that trust, in order to be able to offer those services.”

Of course, building that trust takes time, resources and money. Kathy Casler says there aren’t enough grants to provide the comprehensive services needed to slow domestic violence. That’s not to say Casler thinks money alone is going to fix all the problems. Latinos account for the fastest growing segment of the population in the greater Birmingham area according to census estimates. But Casler says there aren’t enough qualified bilingual counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, in the job market. Casler points to Gateway’s own job hunt for a bi-lingual counselor.

“It’s hard getting them! We’ve probably advertised for two years. There just aren’t that many bi-lingual people out there that have the credentials to offer the services. So we felt really lucky to get Eckart. And we’ve planned Eckart’s future for him. He finishes graduate school in May, and we’re just counting the months till he finishes so we can put him in other services.”

Providing other services—preventative services—might be the key to curbing domestic violence in the community. Back in Hoover, down the street from where the men wait for work, two newly immigrated women talk with Catholic counselor Brenda Bulloch at the multi-cultural center. This is where Gateway provides a weekly counseling service. Bullock says more people are asking for a wide ranges of services – from help with taxes to counseling sessions.

“And we’re here to listen to their problems, and people come here and they come for guidance, you know tell them what they think they should do.”

The center has become a hub for the community, something that excites Bulloch. Her hope is that the center can help guide a family through tough times, without someone getting hurt.

— John Sepulvado, May 18, 2006