Photo: Pixabay.
Photo: Pixabay.

A Trio of Latino Congressmembers introduce the Mental Health for Latinos Act that addresses mental health stigma and health care disparities

The legislation aims to tackle barriers and "reinforce the message that there is no shame in asking for help," said one of the bill's sponsors.


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A long standing disparity in mental health services has left the Latino community unequipped to handle trauma and tragedy. 

Latino lawmakers, Sens. Bob Menendez, N.J., Sen. Alex Padilla, Calif. and Rep. Grace Napolitano, Calif.  are hoping to address those historical disadvantages and more through a new bill, the Mental Health for Latinos Act, that aims to tackle the cultural stigma around mental health, as well as fix the health care disparities.

“We’ve been for 20 years trying to get attention focused on Latino mental health,” Napolitano said in a phone interview with NBC News.

The longtime lawmaker of California said the legislation is meant to create and put in place a number of outreach and education strategies to promote mental health services, as well as address the stigma of using them, identify gaps and involve consumers and community members in addressing them. 

The entire idea is to “reinforce the message that there is no shame in asking for help,” she said.

The bill would also direct the agency to boost awareness of symptoms of mental illnesses common among Latinos and address the impact of COVID on the mental and behavioral health of Latinos. 

Napolitano in 2001 helped begin a school-based mental health services program in her congressional district in 2001. The move at the time came when Latinas were seeing the highest adolescent suicide rates. The program started in one high school and three middle schools, and has since expanded to dozens of schools.

Napolitano said the bill introduced by the trio of Latino lawmakers is not likely to advance as a stand-alone bill. They hope the new bill can be added to the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, N.J., and Napolitano in the House, with a companion bill introduced in the Senate by Menendez. 

It was approved by the House in 2021; however, the Senate did not take it up for a vote. 

President Joe Biden last week announced new proposed regulations that are meant to push insurance companies to boost their coverage of mental health treatments. 

According to the White House, 2 in 5 American adults in 2021 reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and 44% of high school students reported struggling with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, social media and gun violence. 

“I don’t know what the difference between breaking your arm and having a mental breakdown is — it’s health,” Biden said Tuesday.

Numbers also reveal that the disparities in mental health services are not only hurting and growing wider for Latinos, but also for Black and Asian adults.

36.1% of Latino adults who had a mental illness in 2021 received services, compared to 52.4% of whites, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 

Almost 52% of adults with mental illness who identify as multiracial received services compared to 39.4% of Black and 25.4% of Asian adults with mental illness received health services that same year.

Some of the reasons Latino families are having trouble getting access to mental health services include higher poverty rates, language barriers, cultural stigmas about therapy or counseling, the cost of therapy, a shortage of culturally relevant mental health services and a lack of mental health professionals, particularly those with multicultural backgrounds.

Sen. Padilla also announced recently that he will be launching the first-ever Senate Mental Health Caucus.

"We must eliminate barriers to mental health care, because no one should suffer in silence," Padilla said in a statement.

"The Mental Health for Latinos Act will improve mental health outcomes by strategically reducing stigma and encouraging people to reach out for help."


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