Growing up I knew two things: that I wanted to help people and I wanted to be in the medical field, I just didn’t know in what capacity. Fast forward many years, and I become a postpartum nurse in one of the busiest hospitals in the area. I loved it from the minute I started, but I always felt the drive to do more.
As a fluent Spanish speaker, I often got patients who only spoke Spanish. For many of these patients, pregnancy is the only time they have contact with medical professionals. There are not many fluent Spanish speaking nurses or doctors, but there are plenty of patients. So when I walked in and introduced myself in Spanish, the faces of these moms would light up and they would begin to ask all the questions they weren’t able to ask for the last couple of days.
I want you to imagine this experience. You are birthing your baby in a foreign country where no one speaks your native language. Occasionally you see a provider who may know a few words in your language, but when it comes to anything more complicated, you can’t communicate your needs. You are worried because you have no idea how you are going to pay for all of this, or because you think now that you are “in the system” they are going to deport you, or simply because you think someone is going to judge you if you ask for more care. This can be very stressful in itself. To add to the stress, talking about mental health is a huge taboo in Latin culture.
You will rarely hear someone say they are depressed, anxious, or having issues adapting to a new baby, but there are a lot of euphemisms. Instead of saying anxious, someone will say “tengo nervios,” I have nerves. Spanish speakers are more likely to talk about symptoms and attribute them to other things, like the lack of sleep, or maybe not eating well. Well-meaning family members don’t suggest that their loved one should talk to someone, they say “pray about it,” “sleep it off,” or, “you just had a baby, what is there to be sad about?”
When I saw Postpartum Support Virginia was starting to offer services in Spanish, I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. I included the one person I knew loved helping people as much as I did–my mom. I started as a volunteer and then became the Spanish Outreach Manager. And then: a global pandemic.
COVID was a blessing in disguise in several ways. It opened the Zoom support groups, which makes it easier for moms who don’t drive, which includes a majority of Spanish speaking mothers. We were able to connect with those in isolated communities where resources were scarce. It made mental health easier to talk about, because everyone is anxious and attendees can see they’re not alone. We could also connect with mental health providers virtually, so appointments were easier to attend. But COVID also created challenges. We had to coach some moms over the phone how to use Zoom, mental health providers that spoke Spanish were booked for weeks before we they could see our clients, and if everyone else is anxious, who can you turn to for support?
I could write a book about the things I have learned about mental health in the Spanish Speaking community. The differences in first generation vs second generation immigrant, how education level affects mental health, the most common relationship issues between husband and wife, or how some solutions may work in Caucasian households, but not necessarily in people of Hispanic or indigenous decent.
Currently we have one Spanish speaking virtual support group on Tuesdays that has a revolving attendance of one or two people, which is an improvement over none at all. We have five fully trained Spanish volunteers, an Outreach Manager, and several therapists who are fluent in Spanish. We have connections in the community, in churches, and in clinics. We have translated most of our information sheets into Spanish, and we are working on being able to provide the volunteer training in Spanish. I consider all of these successes that we have worked so hard for. I know the path is still very long, but I look forward to the support we are providing, where before there was none.