CDC: Latinx Community Hit Hard by COVID Mental Health Issues


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Key Takeaways

  • A report from the CDC found higher rates for depression, substance use, and suicidal thoughts among Hispanic/Latino-identifying people.
  • Various psychological and social forces perpetuate mental health problems for Latinx individuals.
  • Experts say more representation for the Latinx community is needed in the mental health space to help combat barriers to accessing care.

The pandemic exacerbated mental health issues for many. But according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, the Latinx community felt it particularly hard. Over 40% of Latinx adults surveyed reported symptoms of depression during the pandemic.

In February, the CDC released mental health data collected during the first few months of the pandemic, April and May 2020. Rates of depression, substance use, and suicidal thoughts increased across the board during this time, compared to 2019 data.

But individuals who were "Hispanic and/or Latino" reported higher rates in all three mental health areas. They reported symptoms of current depression 59% more frequently than non-Hispanic White adults. They also experienced suicidal thoughts/ideation two to four times as much as other demographic groups and increased or newly initiated substance use twice as much.

The unpredictability of a newly-declared pandemic, and simply not knowing what to do, could partially explain these higher rates for Latinx individuals, Adriana Alejandre, LMFT, a Spanish-speaking therapist based in Los Angeles, tells Verywell.

"The community tends to be very high-functioning," Alejandre says, referring to the ability to get up, get dressed, go to work, go to school, and satisfy one's responsibilities and duties throughout the day. But it's when this individual is alone, she says, that rumination begins. "Whatever they haven't addressed emotionally comes out when they're not fulfilling these responsibilities when they don't have a to-do list. We saw a lot of that throughout this last year."

What's Causing Mental Health Issues to Spike?

A few factors may be at play here. Alejandre says the stigma around mental health, being enclosed with (or without) family for long periods of time, and past traumas can all contribute.

When Alejandre saw many of her clients struggling with loneliness and substance use since the beginning of the pandemic, she expanded her practice to include three other mental health professionals.

But mental health doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's influenced not only by what's happening in one's own head or home but in society. The CDC asked respondents about "social determinants of health," including:

  • Stress and worry about possible job loss
  • Ability to obtain needed health care
  • Not having enough food
  • Housing instability

Hispanic and/or Latino-identifying adults expressed more stress about not having enough food (22.7%) or stable housing (20.7%) than White adults (11.9% and 9.2%, respectively).

"I think people during COVID specifically have experienced a lot of depression and anxiety because it's been a huge threat to their income," Alejandre says. Income, like for anyone, is important to Latinx individuals. But within the community, some could feel more financially unstable depending on their job situation, home life, and extended family.

"It's how we provide—how we take care of not just our nuclear family, but also our extended family, and so that in itself that adds a lot of stress," she adds.

Representation in Health Care

For Latinx individuals who want to seek treatment for their worsening mental health issues, representation can pose a barrier.

In 2018, the American Psychologist Association reported that only 5% of psychologists (who hold PhDs) are Hispanic and/or Latino, while only 5.5% of all psychologists (of any race or ethnicity) speak Spanish. These statistics are similar for counselors and social workers, who are largely female and White.

This lack of visibility and ability to offer services in Spanish can present a hurdle to the therapeutic process, Joicy Salgado, LMHC, a Spanish-speaking therapist based in New York, tells Verywell. After all, the term "Latinx community," she says, was created to connect a complex diaspora of people in the U.S. who trace ancestry back to Latin America. "A lot of people have immigrated here, and so if I am from Peru and you're from Uruguay and we speak Spanish, we'll be like, oh, we're Latino," Salgado says. "I can create that community and a sense of connection."

Having that familiarity can be important in breaking down stigma and skepticism related to mental health care. Still, Salgado adds, every client is different. "I think that that balance between the client, seeing someone that looks similar, but still holding space for their unique experience, really allows the client to feel comfortable."

Other Factors May Impact the Data

While the psychological, social, and financial factors mentioned help explain the higher numbers for Latinx individuals, there are issues with the data to consider, including sample size, distrust, stigma, and language.

First, the sample size of the CDC study is relatively small—just 1,004 respondents, with almost two-thirds (657) identifying as White. Only 118 of the respondents (about 12%) identified as Hispanic and/or Latino.

It's also a given, Alejandre says, that many Latinx individuals were not represented for fear, distrust, and lack of access to the survey.

"There's a lot of people within our community that are not represented because of fear of deportation, or because they don't have access to healthcare," she says, "So I believe that [the mental health statistics are] actually a lot higher." The survey was also only offered in English.

This study only offers a glimpse into how people were doing during a specified time frame, without being able to identify the cause. Therefore, numbers might be elevated for certain groups, the report mentions, due to systemic inequities that were in place long before the pandemic, such as racism, lack of access to healthcare, and financial pressures.

They add that "persistent systemic social inequities and discrimination" that impact living and work environments can make disparities worse by contributing to medical conditions. Having a medical condition, such as diabetes or asthma, is a known risk factor for COVID-19, which can, in turn, increase stress and mental health issues.

Expanding Mental Health Services Post-Pandemic

Salgado has seen clients who aren't motivated to receive mental health help because of a lack of representation. But with more initiatives and open language around mental health post-pandemic, she says, "I am pretty excited for what is to come."

For example, Justice for Migrant Women is working on "Healing Voices," a mental health initiative for farmworkers in California and Florida that brings them together through virtual support groups. The project aims to support the workers, teach them their rights, and build connections.

In addition, Latinx Therapy, which Alejandre spearheads, offers multiple tools in the mental health space: a database of Latinx therapists, a podcast discussing mental health topics, wellness resources, and workshops.

Still, Salgado says there's an existing stigma within these communities that she hopes to see fade away.

"Something that we have forgotten in a lot of communities is that our ancestry has done mental health and healing for years," Salgado says. "If we remind ourselves that [modern psychotherapy is] just one of those healing spaces, people can gravitate towards that a little bit more."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McKnight-Eily LR, Okoro CA, Strine TW, et al. Racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of stress and worry, mental health conditions, and increased substance use among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, April and May 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70(5):162–166. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7005a3

  2. Smith, BL. Spanish-speaking psychologists in demand. Monitor on Psychology. 2018;49(6).

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.