Iowa Public Radio News | By Kassidy Arena
Edgardo Ramirez’s parents came from Mexico for work. They started in California agriculture, then moved with their children to Sioux City for opportunities in the meatpacking industry.
Ramirez said he and his two sisters had a nice upbringing, aside from some family struggles here and there. Ramirez and his older sister not only went to college, but graduated. Ramirez got a job as a research project manager at Northwestern University and all seemed well.
Then COVID-19 happened.
“Yeah, so man COVID…So COVID hit my family pretty hard,” Ramirez said after a long pause.
Ramirez’s parents and younger sister back in Sioux City tested positive for the virus. His father ended up in the hospital on a ventilator. At a loss to help his family from Chicago, Ramirez hoped everything would get better after the 14-day quarantine period.
But Ramirez was trying to repeat this mantra while outside sources were telling him otherwise.
“I was getting swamped with news at work and everywhere else constantly with like college-aged people or younger people or it doesn’t matter what age you are, but you can die from having COVID,” Ramirez said. “All these things that were just stressing my family out and stressing me out really.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic or Latino people are 2.8 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than the white population and 4.6 times higher to be hospitalized. The scariest statistic for Ramirez was that as Latinos, his parents were 1.1 times more likely to die from the virus.
That fact weighed on his mind while he also dealt with trying to take care of his family. The burden became too much.
“I burnt out at one point because like I was just doing, doing, doing, but I wasn’t taking care of myself as much,” Ramirez said.
Luckily, Ramirez had resources to go to a therapist. He said this is a privilege many others in his community may not have or know about, but desperately need right now.
National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, conducted research on the state of mental health in the Latino population, especially youth.
In the findings, “Mental Health Services for Latino Youth: Bridging Culture and Evidence,” the council found “Latino youth have the highest rates of depressive and suicidal symptoms of any ethnic group in the United States; rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and risk for anxiety and behavioral problems are also elevated among these youth.”
The report found this may be due to lack of access from cost of care, mental health stigma in the community or an overall lack of resources.
Ramirez talked about how elevated rates in mental health diagnoses may be due to cultural values. He, much like many Latino youth, take on the role of caretaker when their parents are unable. The exchange of roles causes an unfamiliar amount of stress in the individual.
“And that’s just something that I think a lot of us have been dealing with is just this collective trauma that like has been induced in our communities,” Ramirez said.
Collective trauma is not something Ramirez just made up. It is a real problem the Latino community faces because of COVID-19, according to licensed mental health counselor Erin Carter in Des Moines. Carter specializes in stress and trauma in Latino clients.
“We can think about stress as being kind of a continuum, where maybe we have a line from zero to ten. On the zero end, zero stress. A ten, that’s like major stress,” Carter said with her hands parallel, symbolizing a line.
“When stress becomes overwhelming, and or chronic, then it becomes damaging. And when you get to the nine or ten area, then you’re talking about traumatic stress, which has a major impact on the way the body works and the way the brain functions and causes real problems with functioning,” Carter said.
She said when it comes to a long-term struggle for basic needs like health, shelter and food, that reaches a ten on the scale. Carter said the problems with functioning stem from a subconscious reaction in an individual’s mind when in stressful situations: fight or flight.
She described this as an “old brain” function in the sense that before civilization, humans may have needed to escape from the threat of, for instance, a lion attack. A person could either find a weapon to attack the tiger, or run away. When it comes to a pandemic though, Carter brought up another mental reaction: freeze. When a person freezes as a reaction to a threat, their brain physically does not work in the same way.
Carter said trauma is even more likely if the individual has a history of PTSD, assault and stressful life events. She said systemic racism, an issue still being confronted in both the black and Latino community, can count as stressful life events or prolonged trauma.
Alejandro Murguia Ortiz, community organizer with American Friends Service Committee, knows first-hand the constant stressors Latinx immigrants face, and how those have increased during the pandemic. He listed them on his fingers: health risks, eviction fears, job loss. COVID-19 has significantly impacted Hispanic people more so than the white population. Unemployment rates are high and without a way to pay the bills, eviction and no way to pay for groceries is a real threat.
“The most important thing is that when we’re addressing issues, when we’re having conversations, when we’re establishing rules and procedures, the needs of the most vulnerable have to be on top of answering any question resolving any issue,” Murguia Ortiz said. “Because if you are protecting those most vulnerable, you’re going to protect everyone.”
If high stress levels continue in Latino communities without any sort of support, Carter says it could negatively impact the entire state, because many Latino workers are essential to Iowa’s operations.
“We know they’re going to be big, big negative impacts, but I’m hopeful that this will help bring more awareness it will help bring up more conversations, it will help with the development of more resources, and that things like tele-health and improve access will continue,” Carter said.
Ramirez’s family has recovered physically from the virus, but his dad still suffers from symptoms of anxiety. Ramirez said it is important to understand mental health is not something that goes away, and it is something that needs leaderships’ attention. Iowa lawmakers have not yet funded any more support for mental health programs in the state this year.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health services:
Iowa Crisis Chat: 1-855-325-4296
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK or (800) SUICIDE
National Alliance on Mental Illness: (800) 950-NAMI
Contact Mosaic Family Counseling Center