WILMINGTON — Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long hosted a town hall on behavioral health in Delaware’s Latino community Thursday.
“During COVID, we have experienced particular issues, not only around our physical challenge with this terrible pandemic and virus,” the lieutenant governor said, but with mental health, as well.
“Tonight, we are so honored that we have with us three leading experts who work particularly in the Latino communities here statewide,” she said.
One of these experts was Dr. Ashley Marchante-Hoffman, a bilingual pediatric psychologist with Nemours Children’s Health System, who said the virus has hit the Latino community hard, creating a lot of stress.
“The rates of hospitalization and death in the Latino community are just so high,” she said. “We’re four times more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die of COVID, so it’s just such a real stress.”
Another speaker present was Lydia DeLeon, the manager of behavioral health at the multilingual Westside Family Healthcare, which provides care at locations in Kent and New Castle counties.
“According to our most recent data, 45% of our patients identify as Latino or Hispanic,” Ms. DeLeon said. “Since the pandemic started almost a year ago, we noticed that our Latino families are struggling even more with financial stress, unemployment, food insecurity, isolation, grief and loss.”
But Kathleen Seipel, the bilingual deputy director of the Wilmington-based Family Counseling Center of St. Paul’s, said there also are mental health issues unique to the Latino community not rooted in the pandemic.
“One of the key challenges that we really try to address is the vulnerability and the isolation that people feel in the community,” she said.
This “is exacerbated by the pandemic, of course, for all of us, but also the isolation and stigma people feel due to immigration status, due to racism, due to other issues they experience in the community,” Ms. Seipel said.
But Ms. DeLeon said Latino families, including children, have not been immune to the mental challenges of the pandemic.
“They also have increased stress at home trying to balance work and schooling for their children, which is taking a toll on the mental health of the whole family,” Ms. DeLeon said.
Dr. Marchante-Hoffman had some insight into this.
“The majority of what we’re seeing is depression, and understandably so,” she said. “I think this is true for children and adults.”
But she said depression can manifest itself differently in kids.
“Oftentimes, it might be not listening, not following directions. They may seem disrespectful. They may be staying in their room a lot more and not wanting to engage with the family,” Dr. Marchante-Hoffman said.
“This can be really hard for parents because, especially within the Latino community — I know in my family and in talking with the families I work with — spending time with your family is important,” she said.
Additionally, she said that the insolence that manifests in some depressed kids can be particularly jarring to Latino parents, who have traditionally put a big emphasis on respect when raising their children.
Ms. Seipel had some insight into the best ways to reach people in the Latino community.
“Over the years, we’ve grown in a community-based setting, which has meant that a lot of our referrals come from primary care,” she said. “We’ve recognized where there’s trust in the community is often with the primary care provider.”
Dr. Marchante-Hoffman works in a primary care setting herself.
“One of the things I learned in graduate school, from my research and just meeting families is that primary care is often the first place you go whenever you experience anything,” she said.
“Having a mental health professional within that setting was just so helpful in helping families understand that physical and mental health are related,” she said.
Ms. Seipel said it’s also good for mental health professionals working in the Latino community to have ties to schools — where counselors and teachers can sometimes identify problems — and places of worship.
“Sometimes, the first time people share a mental health concern is in their faith-based community,” she said. “We’ve found that those settings and being connected to those settings and meeting people where they are there has been really important in building trust.”
A lot of the time it’s hard to get members of the Latino community engaged in mental health care for a variety of reasons. One is the stigma surrounding admitting a mental health issue.
“There’s a stigma associated … with saying you’re not well, that you’re stressed out,” Ms. DeLeon said.
She said people are afraid of being perceived as weak.
“We need to continue doing this type of event, and we need to continue talking about it, to continue having these conversations in our communities,” she said.
Ms. Seipel said it’s easier for people to speak up if they see others in their community doing the same.
“Sharing that vulnerability helps other people step up,” she said.
Dr. Marchante-Hoffman has found it useful to speak about mental health in terms of physical health.
“We don’t have a problem with talking about our physical health and saying, ‘I have a headache. I have a cold,’” she said. “It’s a lot harder to say I need help for my brain.”
The psychologist said it’s important to stress that “your brain is part of your body. … Your body can react to stress and get sick, and your brain can, too.”
Often, undocumented immigrants are fearful about pursuing help because they’re worried they will be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But undocumented Delawareans in need of mental health care don’t need to worry about this, the panelists said.
“In Delaware, their citizenship status doesn’t matter,” Ms. DeLeon said. “They can come, and we don’t even ask for that.”
One thing all three speakers stressed was the need for more multilingual, culturally responsive mental health professionals to serve Delaware’s Latinos and other immigrant communities.
“Even before the pandemic, … accessing mental health care for Latinos was hard. You spent a lot of time on waitlists and looking for a Spanish-speaking clinician,” Dr. Marchante-Hoffman said.
Still, there are affordable multilingual mental health resources available for Latinos and anyone else who may need them statewide.
Westside Family Healthcare, Ms. DeLeon’s organization, has locations around New Castle County and one in Dover. It can be reached at 224-6800 for New Castle County residents or 678-4622 for Kent and Sussex county residents.
La Red Health Center, a community health care organization focused on immigrants, also provides multilingual mental health services in numerous locations across Sussex County. It can be reached at 855-1233.
Those in the Wilmington area can reach out to the Family Counseling Center at St. Paul’s, where Ms. Seipel works, at 576-4136.