How Does Schizophrenia Affect Hispanic and Latin American People?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on May 06, 2022
4 min read

Studies show that Hispanic and Latin American people with schizophrenia have the same mental experiences and positive treatment response as other ethnic groups. Yet many don’t have the same access to high quality mental health services. Cultural stigma, language barriers, immigration status, and other factors all can play a role.

The need for mental health treatment for Hispanic and Latin American people is rising. A national survey showed the rate of mental health problems has gone up in Latino and Hispanic people from teens to middle age. Serious mental illness – which includes schizophrenia – over a 10-year span shot up from 4% to 6.4% in ages 18-25, and nearly doubled in ages 26-49.

Stigma has been cited as the one of the biggest roadblocks to seeking and getting mental health services in some minority populations. The Latino and Hispanic communities are no different. The attitudes driving it in this case might include:

  • Shame. The belief that sharing mental health issues will embarrass or bring unwanted attention to your family.
  • A lack of info all around. If mental health isn’t open for discussion in the home, it’s likely to be off-limits in the broader community, too. In the same vein, religious leaders and groups might not be supportive because they have no experience with mental illness and don’t know how to help.
  • Not recognizing the signs. This goes hand-in-hand with a lack of knowledge. If you don’t know what symptoms to look out for, you might not see the signs that it’s time to get help.

Cultural and social stigma don’t necessarily mean that your family doesn’t care. A report focused on Mexican-American families found that most relatives felt a relative’s mental health symptoms were important and tried to help. Even after some families reached out to professional mental health services, about a fourth still tried to treat the illness at home.

Another study found Mexican-American families who weren’t very engaged in American culture didn’t view mental illness as static, aka a “done deal.” They tend to hope the mental illness would get better, using more manageable words like “nervous” to describe distressed family members. Researchers found the aspect of hope helped Latino families cope with caring for the family member at home.

The lack of access, due to physical or cultural factors, to high quality, forward-thinking mental health care remains a big problem. Researchers feel that more than 50% of Hispanic young adults with serious mental illness may not get treatment at all. Meanwhile, 10% fewer Hispanic adults receive treatment than the U.S. average, upping the chances of mental health conditions getting worse.

Financial status plays a large part. Other obstacles include:

Language barriers. It’s tricky when the speaker is trying to describe a touchy subject, even when they’re using their own language.

Having a Spanish-speaking or bilingual health care provider isn’t always enough. For example, some Hispanic people speak in dialects other Spanish speakers don’t grasp. A provider needs to know what language is spoken in the home and have interpreters handy.

Treatment from a person of the same ethnicity can make a big difference, though. A study noted greater success when Mexican-American patients whose primary language wasn’t English had therapy from a mental health professional of the same background. The patient was more likely to have a good outcome and less likely to drop out of treatment.

Cultural differences and misdiagnosis. When bilingual Hispanic people are evaluated in both their languages, the diagnoses still can be different.

Sometimes the language of culture comes into play. For example, Latinx people tend to use words for physical symptoms to describe psychiatric issues. They might say “nervous” or “tired” to describe depression. Even if the words apply to the condition, the provider might think it’s something else.

“Informal mental health care.” Some Latinx immigrants said in a survey that their preferred source for psychological issues was a religious leader, like a minister, rabbi, or priest.

Meanwhile, Latin American or Hispanic people who do seek medical service for a mental health disorder are twice as likely to see a primary care provider than a mental health specialist.

Immigration and acculturation. According to research, immigrants who are children or older adults are more likely to have mental disorders related to immigration. Acculturation, or whether ethnic groups become part of their new country's culture or stick within their native one, plays a big role, too.

Immigrants have many built-in factors that can lead to going untreated for mental health issues.

  • A study of Latino and Asian immigrants found only 6% had ever gotten mental health care. This made them 40% less likely to seek and find services than those who were American born.
  • Only 15% of Latin American immigrants who were diagnosed with a psychiatric condition reached out for mental health services once in the U.S, compared to 38% of U.S.-born Mexican-American people with similar needs.
  • Latin American immigrants were only half as likely to use mental health specialty services as people of the same racial-ethnic group who were born in the U.S.
  • Undocumented Hispanic or Latin American immigrants had the lowest rates of having mental health services.

Despite the barriers, immigrants seem to want to find help for mental health challenges. A study found 75% of Latin American immigrants had positive views of mental health care.