The mental health of young people in America is key to our nation’s future success and prosperity: healthy, confident, hopeful youth can more easily find the path to academic, social, economic, and civic well-being. Today’s generation of young people, however, is coming of age during a period of social uncertainty and upheaval that may threaten their sense of safety and stability in the world. A range of pressures, including heightened economic inequality, increased financial burdens, and a reduced job market, have made today’s millennials “America’s most stressed generation” according to the American Psychological Association. For poor youth of color, additional environmental strains such as poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and chronic racial/ethnic discrimination, among other social determinants of health, can significantly increase distress and their overall mental and emotional well-being.
Among young Latinos in particular—one out of four American youth— the anxiety provoked by racial and ethnic antagonism has been greatly magnified by the events and discourse surrounding the 2016 election cycle. Bullying, hostile discourse, and incidents or threats of violence have skyrocketed since the election, producing intense fear and distress within schools and other social spaces. In addition, the worry and uncertainty that many Latino children have grown up with—that they, or a parent, breadwinner, or loved one will be deported and their family broken up—has today become more pronounced than ever.
While these stresses have intensified over the past months, they are not new to the Latino community. The majority of young Latinos, like their parents and communities, have historically been remarkably resilient in the face of challenging circumstances. Values such as strong family bonds, community support, and a cultural disposition for perseverance and optimism have helped many young Latinos to thrive. But for some, external pressures can produce high levels of trauma and distress, which for the most vulnerable may have a real impact on their psychological well-being. Studies have shown that Latino youth have the highest rates of depressive and suicidal symptoms of any ethnic group in the United States; rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and risk for anxiety and behavioral problems are also elevated among these youth. Unfortunately, young Latinos also experience multiple barriers to accessing adequate prevention and treatment services, thereby exacerbating mental health care disparities. Reasons for inadequate access include: cost of services, lack of health insurance, the stigma around mental health issues, and in many places, a shortage of accessible, culturally appropriate mental and behavioral health programs and providers that can effectively screen, diagnose, and treat Latinos.
The societal cost of neglecting the health needs and unique circumstances of young Latinos is high. Too many youth experiencing mental or behavioral health issues, for example, eventually find themselves in juvenile detention centers, rather than entering prevention programs that can help them successfully heal. Detention facilities often exacerbate psychological issues, and cost states billions of dollars each year. Untreated mental illness and addiction can also lead to devastating circumstances including homelessness, delinquency, violence, or even premature death. We must do better for our youth.
This report describes the mental health landscape for Latino youth, including risk factors, existing treatments, and the ongoing debate about strategies for treating Latino youth and how programs should be evaluated. We argue that to nurture a culture of health within the Hispanic community and among broader society, we must increase efforts to understand the particular needs of Latino youth—including the protective factors that contribute to mental and emotional well-being—as well as identify, support, and replicate high-quality, effective, culturally appropriate mental health models and services.
The report outlines the key elements recommended by Latino mental and behavioral health experts to improve the quality of mental health services for Latino youth. These strategies can help to narrow racial and ethnic gaps in care by encouraging Latino youth to access services; facilitate their participation in treatment; and help to promote healing and positive self-esteem.