Growing Up Surrounded by Stigma, by Guest Blogger Alisha Soto

Alisha received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and is currently working on her Masters in Social Work at the University of Connecticut where she is also the chair of the Latino Students Association.  In her free time, she enjoys reading, watching horror movies, and spending time with her dog, Scout.

While the stigma surrounding mental health is incredibly harmful to any population, marginalized populations may be more at risk due to cultural stigmas.  These cultural stigmas may contribute to resistance in seeking treatment.  Research shows that many African Americans feel like having mild depression or anxiety would be looked upon as “crazy” in their social circles and would not be appropriate to discuss even among family. (i)  Furthermore, Asian Americans report pressure in having to live up to a “model minority”, which also inhibits help-seeking behavior. (ii)  This stigma is also present in the Latino culture.

Growing up in a Puerto Rican household, mental illness was seen through a negative lens.  Having any form of mental illness meant that you were “loco” (crazy) and no one in my household was “loco.”  Sometimes, my mom suffered from “ataques de nervios” (nerve attacks), but that wasn’t perceived to be a mental illness, it was just something that we as Latinos went through.  So when I started having panic attacks in high school, I wasn’t too concerned.  I had assumed that it was ataque de nervios and let it be.  The symptoms of ataque de nervios are intense fear and inability to move, uncontrollable fainting or seizures, verbal attacks and physical aggressions, and chest tightness or heart palpitations. (iii)

It wasn’t until college that I realized that ataques de nervios wasn’t what I was dealing with.  I wasn’t acting verbally or physically aggressive and I wasn’t screaming or crying.  I was just worried all the time.  And sometimes that worry became too much and I had panic attacks.  It took me a while to figure out that what I was experiencing were symptoms of anxiety and that was hard to admit to myself.  My old thoughts took root: Anxiety is a mental illness and I am not crazy.  Talking to my mom about my fear that I had anxiety just exacerbated that stigma.  She kept telling me, “You don’t need to see a doctor. People who see a doctor because of what is wrong in their head are ‘locos’ and have real problems.  You are not ‘loco’; you are in college and you don’t have problems.”  What I got from this conversation was that “We’re Puerto Rican.  We suffer in silence.” So, I didn’t bother to see anyone about my anxiety or my panic attacks.

Years went by.  Years of avoiding social situations if I didn’t know anyone there.  Years of staying at a job I hated because the thought of going into a new environment made me too anxious.  Years of stressing myself out about impossible situations that would never happen to me or obsessing so much over past situations that I would have panic attacks.  Years of consistently trying to will myself to calm down when there wasn’t a situation that warranted worry and then self-medicating when I couldn’t.  I look back sometimes and despair at all the years wasted when I couldn’t fully enjoy life because I was too afraid and anxious to participate.

While I am slowly but surely getting a handle on my anxiety disorder, I still struggle every day to reverse the thinking that having an anxiety disorder means you are “loco.”  I am slowly but surely trying to reverse the thinking that saying “Hey, I think I need help” is a sign of weakness, but actually a sign of strength.  I am slowly but surely trying to compound the stigma surrounding mental illness in Latinos by speaking out about my own experiences as well as advocate for the importance of cultural competency in the mental health profession.



If you need support now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or, text “START” to 741-741 to get help 24/7 from the Crisis Text Line.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.