UNDER PRESSURE

Chatham's Latinx teens battle cultural effects on mental health

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SILER CITY – Noemi Mora, Cesia Lopez and Lenore Ramos — each 17-year-old seniors at Jordan-Matthews High School — share many similarities with their peers.

They’re in the midst of making some major decisions, like whether or not to go to college. They’re thinking about careers to pursue. And they’ll tell you that those decisions add enough pressure to their lives.

But each face things they say their many of their other classmates will never have to deal with.

Mora, Lopez and Ramos are Hispanic. And while that’s nothing abnormal in Chatham County, and especially nothing strange in Siler City or at Jordan-Matthews, they say their day-to-day struggles are unique to their ethnicity.

“I feel like there’s so much more pressure on a Latino person than there is a white person,” Mora says. “I feel like we all try so hard to get out of where we came from and we have such pressure to be bigger and better than our parents are.”

So it’s no surprise to them that their Hispanic peers in high school are more likely to be depressed, consider suicide and attempt suicide than the average Chatham County teenager, and at some levels, more likely than their national counterparts.

Why?

The students point to the unique amounts of pressure that face them in their daily lives.

Looking at the Numbers

Salud America! is a San Antonio-based organization dedicated to “inspir(ing) people to drive community change for health equity for Latino and all kids,” according to its mission statement. In 2017, they put together a review of research on mental health and Latinx youth.

The abstract begins this way: “Latino youth are far more likely than their peers to have mental health issues, which often go unaddressed and untreated.”

The International Journal of Adolescent Medical Health reported that 22 percent of Latinx youth across the country have depressive symptoms, “a rate higher than any minority group besides Native American youth.” Hispanic high schoolers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are more likely than their white peers to consider and attempt suicide.

That rings true in Chatham County.

According to the 2018 Community Health Assessment put together by the Chatham Health Alliance, about 16 percent of Hispanic high schoolers in the county have attempted suicide, compared to eight percent of white high schoolers. Thirty-seven percent of Latinx high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for more than two weeks, compared to 32 percent of their Caucasian peers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chatham County’s population is 12.5 percent Hispanic — third in ethnicity behind white (71.6 percent) and black (12.7 percent). But there’s been significant growth in the number of Hispanic residents in the last 30 years. The county’s official website states that Chatham had an estimated 564 Hispanic residents in 1990, but that number grew to about 8,800 in 2017.

The majority of that growth has been in Siler City, where an estimated 43.5 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx. That’s where Mora, Lopez and Ramos were born after their parents moved from Central America — Mora and Ramos’ from Mexico, Lopez’s from Guatemala.

They say they don’t feel like a minority in Siler City or at Jordan-Matthews, where the student population is 51 percent Hispanic and 29 percent white. But it’s within that community, they say, that mental health issues are difficult to be open about and even more difficult to get help for.

Under Pressure

Selina Lopez leads the youth leadership program at El Vïnculo Hispano, also known as The Hispanic Liaison, in downtown Siler City. The program, called “Orgullo Latinx Pride,” is about a year old but has already attracted 26 high schoolers on a regular basis.

Selina Lopez, 24, isn’t too far gone from that age group. And like many of them, she had mental health issues of her own as a teenager. Those numbers from the Community Health Assessment don’t surprise her.

“I lived it,” she says. “I myself was diagnosed with mental problems. It’s hard. You have so many more stressors.”

There are a couple major reasons, Selina Lopez and the teens say, and the first one is something familiar to teens and adults of any ethnicity struggling with mental health: stigma.

“At home, we are taught that the laundry is washed at home,” Ramos says. “You don’t want your problems or anything going out of the house. At home, our parents don’t like to talk about mental health and people are afraid to be labeled ‘locos,’ or ‘crazy.’”

There’s added pressure, Cesia Lopez says, due to perceived stereotypes of the Latinx population.

“People are waiting for us to slip up, and when we do, they want to label all Latinx students as lazy, drug dealers, or just in general, ‘They don’t want to do anything,’” she says. “There’s a few people who do that, but not everyone is like that.”

Because of that, Latinx teenagers are almost compelled as a societal expectation to keep their problems internal – which any mental health professional will say is unhealthy. Ramos recognizes that, saying Latinx youth often don’t get help because parents don’t want any bad appearances.

“Therefore they’re alone and they become more isolated,” she says, “and thus the numbers go up.”

Mora, Cesia Lopez and Ramos said each of their parents, when hearing or seeing their daughters’ mental or emotional struggles, would often say something to the effect of, “You’ve got so many good things. Why are you struggling?”

“Everybody told me that I needed a therapist,” Cesia Lopez says, “and then my parents were over here saying, ‘No, no, you don’t need that. All you need to do is focus in school. You shouldn’t be sad. You have a house and a family.’”

In a conversation with the News + Record last week, the others nodded along as she spoke. Mora says she was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, wanting to repeat things to make sure everything was right. She says she started to become “really sad” because she was confused. She went to therapy, and her parents were supportive during that time. But when they left, it was a different story.

“My parents are very religious,” she says. “They were like, ‘It’s because you don’t pray enough. You’re not grateful. You have a good home.’ They told me they never heard of anyone having anxiety back where they lived, and they never heard of people having depression back where they lived.”

That’s reflective of the Latinx experience in general, Selina Lopez says. She was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. as a child, coming with her mother to meet her father, a legal resident in Warren County, North Carolina. Because of the intensity of their parents’ move to the U.S. — “they had to cross a desert, swim across a river,” she says — any trauma was internalized.

A Constant Burden

These teenagers, even as they express frustration with their parents’ initial reactions to their mental health issues, make it clear that they love their parents, and it’s seen most when the word “immigration” comes up.

Selina Lopez says some of the youngsters in her group have seen their parents deported. She points specifically to recent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel in the county. That adds a whole other level of stress.

“If you have undocumented parents, that fear is always in your head of, ‘Will my parents be home when I come home? Will they make it to work fine?’” she says. “All those things are in your mind since you’re small because of that fear. It runs generationally.”

Cesia Lopez, Mora and Ramos are all U.S. citizens because they were born in Siler City, but they all say they’ve felt that fear since they were little.

“It’s scary, but it’s gotten to the point where we’ve learned how to live with the fear,” Ramos says. “It’s become so normal in our routine.”

Mora adds, “When we get home and see our parents there, it is such a relief because they’re there and you have them.”

Ramos’ parents have already been deported to Mexico. So when the news comes on and there’s talk of immigration policies and deportations, it’s added pressure.

“When you’ve been away from your parents for multiple years, it’s hard to listen to the news, it’s hard to read the news,” she says. “It’s hard to have a messed up government that doesn’t have enough empathy to care about people’s lives and how they’re affecting them. When you get home from school and you don’t see your parents and you think, ‘Why are they not here?’ I was born here, and they came here and worked for 12 years and got no benefits out of it. They paid taxes, they never broke the law, and yet they have no rights, and yet they take my right to be away from my parents.

"It’s not fair when I look at my white classmates. You don’t get pulled over because you’re a person of color. You don’t get stared at. You live with your parents. You have your family here. When you have to grow up alone, the affect that that has on your mental health — it creates a huge disadvantage for you when you already have a huge disadvantage because you’re a person of color.

“It’s unfair and it’s depressing to think, ‘How many more years will I have to wait until I see my parents again?’ They’re not criminals. The only thing they did wrong was cross that border illegally because immigration policies are ridiculous because you have to be a rich person in Mexico or have tons of land, have a super stable job, so that they know you’re actually going to go back and not stay here. But if your parents are fleeing, if they’re poor people, they’re trying to work somewhere else where they can have a much better financial situation and a much better way of life. Of course they wanted a better life, and they gave me that for 11 years. Now they’re not here. The pressure is up. I have to deal with that. I have a supportive community, but it’s still on me.”

Handling the Pressure

Even though Chatham County and Siler City have a significant Hispanic population, Selina Lopez’s group says they still feel some racism and discrimination, particularly after the 2016 presidential election.

“That was hurtful for me to hear, that in schools they were receiving these kinds of phrases,” Selina Lopez says. “After the election like, ‘Oh, so now you have to go back to your country’ or wearing the hat, ‘Make America Great Again’ and teachers and adults not stopping that behavior. Feeling that hatred and that attack of, ‘Why doesn’t the U.S. accept me?’ Especially if they grew up in this country and they consider this country home. This is the only home they’ve ever had. For them, it’s feeling that isolation.”

Cesia Lopez, Ramos and Mora admit that they haven’t always dealt with the pressure and their mental health issues in the best way. They say their parents are now more understanding of their struggles, and they’re grateful for Selina Lopez being a part of their lives.

“Selina answers right away,” Cesia Lopez says.

“She’ll be like, ‘I’m here for you, boo. What’s up?’” Ramos says.

Cesia gives possibly the highest compliment any teenager can give an adult these days — “She’s the real one.”

The Hispanic population can also access El Futuro, a mental health clinic serving Latinx families with offices in Durham and Siler City. Chatham County has supported the clinic since 2010, with $158,250 given to the organization in the last 10 county budgets. Debra Henzey, chair of the mental health subcommittee of the Chatham Health Alliance, says the group has had more and more demand for its services in recent years.

“Many times it’s hearing people talk about their fears about being seized, removed from their homes, separated from their families,” Henzey said.

Public Health Director Layton Long adds that there’s “a much more brazen attitude about stating things that shouldn’t be stated against certain populations.”

“I witnessed it myself at the grocery store,” Henzey said. “I was terrified people were talking like that.”

In the meantime, Cesia Lopez, Ramos and Mora are focusing on how to get a good job and get enough money to bring their families to America for good.

“My parents have been my motivation since I was little,” Cesia Lopez says.

Lenore adds, “If I want to be stable at some point in my 30s, when I can finally bring my parents back, I will be able to do that. I will be able to say, ‘Yes, these are my documents. I am rich enough to bring my family here with me legally.’”

Mora chimes in and says the fear of being a Latinx youth in America, with the threat of parental deportation and having to buck stereotypes, drives her “to be a better person.” She wants her parents to feel as comfortable and safe in the U.S. as she does.

“All I can hope for is that one day,” she says, “we won’t be scared.”

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