At a meeting of the Siler City Board of Commissioners a few weeks ago, Isa Godinez and Jorge Gutiérrez of the UNC-Chapel Hill Latino Migration Project presented the Building Integrated Communities plan.
The plan aims to help local government engage with immigrant and refugee populations to improve economic development, livability and community relationships. One of the key areas for improvement cited in the presentation was youth mental health. This piqued our interest, so we decided to dig further.
For Latino students in Siler City, where the 2010 Census put the number of Hispanics at nearly 50 percent, even reaching out for mental health care can be a challenge.
Margaret Grayson, a guidance counselor at Jordan-Matthews High School, where nearly 60 percent of students are Hispanic, said many students fear the response from the parents or guardians when seeking out mental health services.
“Students will say to me ‘I’m so afraid my parents will be mad about this’ or ‘They’re not going to hear me. They’re not going to validate or understand what I’m going through,’” Grayson said. “That’s a very delicate process, just managing all of that—bringing the student and the family together and helping the family to understand where the student is and what kind of help the students need.”
Grayson said she’s seen an increase in mental-health referrals at the school in recent years. Grayson said most of these referrals come from teachers, although some students are referred by family or come willingly to seek mental health services.
A report prepared to accompany the BIC plan mentions several specific mental health disorders Latino students struggle with in the area.
“Providers and school staff identified the most prevalent mental health problems they encountered among Latino students in elementary, middle and high schools,” the report reads. “These include self-harm, depression, isolation, anxiety and behavioral issues such as ADHD.”
“In high school, participants perceived that self-harm, specifically cutting, was prevalent among Latina girls.”
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities found that, although white people have higher rates of depression, depression among Hispanic people is likely to be more persistent.
Evidence also suggests Hispanic children may face worse outcomes when dealing with mental health issues. According to data from a 2013 CDC survey, high school-aged Hispanic students had consistently higher rates of suicidal ideation than white students of the same age.
It’s not just Jordan-Matthews.
Rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents have been on the rise nationwide. According to data from the CDC High School Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 29 percent of North Carolina high school students – and 31 percent of U.S. high school students – surveyed reported symptoms of depression in 2017.
Similar national numbers were found for anxiety disorder in survey of more than 10,000 13- to 18-year-olds.
Neither Grayson nor the report’s authors could pinpoint a single reason why students have suffered from increased mental health problems in recent years, but both suggested a number of factors could be to blame.
Perhaps chief among these was poverty.
According to the most recent North Carolina School Report Card for Jordan-Matthews, 72.6 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and more than 70 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch – an indicator of poverty.
At nearby Siler City and Virginia Cross elementary schools, the rate is greater than 90 percent. County-wide, 50 percent of Latino children live in poverty, according to data from the 2016 American Community Survey cited in the BIC report.
The BIC report also points out several other stressors uniquely faced by Latino students, including fear of deportation and racism aimed at them by classmates.
“The day after [the] elections, there were teachers at every corner and outside of classrooms to make sure that there was no fighting,” an unidentified student told a BIC staff member.
Many Latino Jordan-Matthews students often work long hours or have childcare obligations, which can negatively impact students’ mental health and attendance, Grayson said.
Data obtained from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction appears to show that students at Jordan-Matthews missed more days on average in the first six months of the 2018-2019 school year compared to the county average for high school students, but fewer than the state average.
Despite the grim numbers, Chatham is making progress.
At Jordan-Matthews, students have access to six in-school therapists, who can speak to students while they would normally be in their elective classes. Grayson said the in-school therapy services first started about five years ago, and she has seen a perceptible increase in referrals ever since.
Students can also seek outside therapy from Daymark Recovery Services, which is located across the street from Jordan-Matthews, or El Futuro – which, unlike both Daymark and the many of the in-school therapists, offers true bilingual mental health services.
Both providers accept Medicare, Medicaid and most major private health insurance.
Several student groups are also raising awareness of these issues and empowering students to do something about them.
At an April 15 Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting, a group of students from Orgullo Latinx Pride, a youth group run by El Vinculo Hispano (The Hispanic Liaison), praised the group for empowering them to speak out against injustice, find confidence and pursue plans to go to college.
“I feel like I have found the power inside of myself and been able to use it to better my community and have learned to not be afraid of using my voice to speak out against the horrible things that my community is put through,” Noemi, a student in the group, told the commissioners in front of packed crowd of hundreds of people waiting to speak about the status of Pittsboro’s Confederate monument. “Because of Orgullo Latinx Pride, one of my biggest dreams is to go to college and come back to aid my community.”
Several of the other students, as well as leaders of the group, spoke on mental health in the Hispanic community and on high suicide rates or ideation among the population there.
Meanwhile, Grayson praised The Peer Education Program of Siler City (PEPSC) for tackling the problem of youth mental health. The group consists of Jordan-Matthews students who provide health information, including mental health information, to their fellow students and the community.
“They are all about looking at these issues head-on,” Grayson said of the group. “And that’s been very powerful.”