New Sussex Co. counselors focus on Hispanics’ mental health

Often, mental health care can be hard to come by for Spanish-speaking immigrants with limited English skills, but now that should be less of a problem in Sussex County.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Delaware branch has hired two Spanish-speaking multicultural engagement coordinators focused specifically on Sussex County’s Hispanic community.

Estevan Garcia

“A lot of my work will be trying to educate and advocate,” said Estevan Garcia, who moved to Georgetown from California when he was 10. He’s passionate about “trying to combat these stigmas and spread the word that it’s OK to talk.”

Jacqueline Contreras, the other new multicultural engagement coordinator, is a native of nearby Worcester County, Maryland. She’s lived in Sussex County since she got married and has since become a fixture in the local community.

She has already been working with Sussex County’s Latino community for the past five years and looks forward to using the relationships she’s built to further NAMI’s mission.

Jacqueline Contreras

“I studied criminal justice, and you’ll come to see that a lot of people sometimes fall through the cracks, and behind that is mental illness,” Ms. Contreras said. “I just thought that it was a really cool path that I’m able to help before it becomes a criminal justice situation in the courts.”

Some figures in the community NAMI is targeting were happy to hear about the new resource.

“Just hearing that is exciting to me,” said Tito Vazquez, a barber and community activist living in Milton. “They can know that there’s someone there to listen to their problems and, of course, to help them in some type of way with whatever problems they’re going through.”

Angie Robles, one of the owners of My Sister’s Fault, a Puerto Rican-style eatery in Milford, also liked the idea but said the assistance offered needs to be properly advertised.

“Sometimes, there is help out there that we are not aware of because we don’t make enough noise about it,” she said. “If we make sure that we’re reaching out to the people in need, it could definitely have a positive impact in the community.”

Mr. Garcia said his own experience with mental illness when he was younger is what inspired him to get involved with NAMI.

“Unfortunately for me, the people I was surrounded by at that time also weren’t as educated or aware of mental illness, so reflecting back, I can see I was dealing with anxiety and depression,” he said, “but at the time, I didn’t have anyone around who was really familiar with it.”

Additionally, Mr. Vazquez said many in the community don’t have mental health resources available to them or know how to access them if they are.

“A lot of people don’t have anywhere to go or know the place to go to talk to someone or who they can talk to,” he said.

Mr. Garcia said language barriers, fear around legal status and a lack of cultural understanding prevent many in the community from pursuing mental health care. However, stigma is the biggest deterrent, he said.

“It just holds people back from even attempting or wanting to search for the help,” he said.

Mr. Garcia identified his fear of being judged as the biggest thing that kept him from pursuing treatment when he was younger.

Ms. Contreras agreed that worry about judgment is prevalent.

“I feel like in the Hispanic culture there’s a lot of shut-door conversations that never happen within families. Things aren’t spoken about, and I think this is one of them,” Ms. Contreras said. “Because the parents never got this conversation, they don’t know how to have this conversation with their children.”

She said one of her main goals with NAMI is to help normalize these discussions. Ms. Robles’ family was able to do this when she was growing up in Puerto Rico, but not without a tragedy.

“Growing up, it used to be a taboo in my family,” Ms. Robles said. “My mom was suffering from depression, but she couldn’t say anything because that was something no one in my family believed in.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until her mother tried to commit suicide when Ms. Robles was 7 that she received professional help. Even then, Ms. Robles’ grandmother couldn’t accept the situation.

“She would think that my mom was just hanging out (while attending treatment) or that she was using this as an excuse to have her babysit her three kids,” Ms. Robles said. “They would get into big arguments about it back in the day until my grandmother came to accept that my mom was in fact receiving help and it was something that was needed.”

Ms. Robles said her mother was hospitalized for two months and that although her grandmother called, visited and dropped off groceries often, she and her two younger siblings were alone most of the time. Ms. Robles got her brother and sister to school and first learned how to cook feeding them through this period.

“That’s how I ended up growing up so fast,” she said. “Many people in the community know that I’m like the mother of the sister and my brother, but it’s because the experiences that we lived growing up with my mom’s mental health issues made me mature prematurely.”

Although Mr. Vazquez said he was lucky to not have much experience with mental illness, he does think back to the hardships he experienced as a child when his family first came to Delaware from Puerto Rico.

“There was a point of time in life where we all had to sleep in one room,” he said. “We didn’t have (air conditioning). We didn’t heat.”

Mr. Vazquez said that he thinks back to these experiences, which he said are common in Delaware’s immigrant communities, every day.

Mr. Garcia and Ms. Contreras were both hired in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis and have spent a lot of their time learning about NAMI and planning for when things get back to normal. At present, the two are running a helpline that is available daily in both English and Spanish.

“The helpline is not a crisis line, but we’re able to listen, and if somebody just wants to talk through something or needs resources,” Ms. Contreras said.

She said NAMI is pushing the line for Spanish speakers.

“They will quickly be able to speak to somebody in Spanish. You don’t really find that, and I think that’s a deterrent sometimes,” she said. “They’re worried that if they call, they’re going to have to go through all these operators before they can speak to someone in Spanish.”

The line can be reached at 415-4356 and is available during normal business hours.