Stigma Keeps Some Latinos From Depression Treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

A new, small study of low-income Latinos with symptoms of depression finds those people who stigmatize mental illness are less likely than others to take medication, keep scheduled appointments and control their condition.

The findings could help physicians develop a series of question to identity patients who might especially resist care and then help them understand how treatment works, said lead study author William Vega.

"Unfortunately, mental health stigma turns out to be one of the most serious barriers for people receiving care or staying in care," said Vega, professor of medicine and social work at the University of Southern California.

Many cultures have stereotypes about depression and mental illness, he said, with some viewing it as something that will brand a family for generations. Latinos, in particular, value resilience and think "it's a cultural value to be able to handle your own affairs," he noted. "If you can't, it implies that you're weak."

While it might not be surprising that Latinos stigmatize mental illness, "like many things, it's all anecdotes and innuendo until you do something more solid, [such as] a research study, and start finding out what the issues are," said Vega.

In the study, published in the March/April issue of General Hospital Psychiatry, researchers surveyed 200 poor, Spanish-speaking Latinos in Los Angeles. They all had visited local primary care centers; 83 percent were women. All participants had shown signs of depression in an initial screening.

Another screening found all but 54 of the 200 individuals were mildly to severely depressed. Researchers deemed 51 percent of the participants stigmatize mental illness, based on responses to such questions as the trustworthiness of a person with depression.

The researchers found that those participants who stigmatize mental illness:

  • 44 percent were more likely to have missed scheduled mental health appointments
  • 22 percent were less likely to take depression medication
  • 21 percent were less likely to be able to control their depression

The findings "show evidence that stigma does exist, and it's related to things that are important to provide as part of proper treatment," Vega said.

Jamie Walkup, a Rutgers University associate professor of psychology who studies mental health and stigma, said the key is to find ways to "push back against these negative ideas, hoping that a person with depression will no longer let an aversion to being a person with depression stop [him or her] from doing what [he or she] may need to do to get help."

It might be worth asking, he said, "whether it may sometimes make more sense to switch gears with a patient who, for whatever reason, finds it intolerable to think of [himself or herself] as having depression."

In such cases, doctors could find other ways to work with these patients without insisting they acknowledge their diagnosis.

Lisa Esposito
[email protected]

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 15, 2010
Last Updated:
September 15, 2010