Therapists say that giving speakers of other languages mental health vocabulary in their own language is a first step toward better mental health.

This month, Los Angeles Mission College launched a series of five weekly mental health workshops, open to the public, in Spanish. It’s the first time the college has provided workshops like this in a language that’s commonly used by the people who live around the campus in the north San Fernando Valley.

“[Spanish speakers] have a stigma about mental health … it’s important for our community to hold these events because they’re in their language. We need for them to understand this topic in their language, in terms they can grasp,” said Magaly Rojas-González, the basic needs coordinator at L.A. Mission College and the event organizer.

NOTE: This story was originally published by the LAist, a media partner of CALÓ NEWS.

The session started with some songs by Los Tigres del Norte, a San Jose-based group whose songs often deal with the challenges of being an immigrant.

“When we come here [from our respective countries] we leave behind family, our history, our childhood,” said Magali Garcia de Alba to the group. She’s a mental health promoter with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health who led the hour-long workshop in a campus classroom.

She spoke to about 15 people.

“What happens when you yearn for all those things? You can stagnate, you don’t adapt, and that can lead to depression,” she said.

Upcoming Mental Health Workshops

  • October 30: Entendiendo la depresión y desarrollando la resiliencia
  • November 6: Comprendiendo la ansiedad y desarrollando resiliencia
  • November 13: Prevención de violencia familiar y resiliencia
  • Los Angeles Mission College:
    13356 Eldridge Ave., Sylmar, Calif.
    CSB 111, 12:30 p.m.

At the center of this effort is what Rojas-González and De Alba describe as a barrier to help Spanish speakers improve their mental health: language.

“You heard some of the students right here, they were [saying] mental health is only for those who are not well from their head, like someone needs to be out of control to get into mental health. So they don’t really feel empathetic with that terminology,” said Rojas-González.

It’s about adding positive associations to these terms, she said.

“If I hear things in my language it is easier for me to participate, it’s easier for me to want to go ahead and participate and to speak about it,” said Rojas-González, “but if I hear it in English, perhaps it doesn’t connect with my culture, it is just another challenge for me to participate.”

Most of the attendees were middle-aged women and a few middle-aged men.

A woman with light brown skin faces the camera outside a college building. She's wearing a pink top. She has long brown hair.

“This workshop’s helping me learn how to deal with the challenges of moving to this country,” said Edgar Ruiz, who lives in Sunland and moved here from Guatemala a year ago.

“The faster you adapt to the language, the culture, the better mental health you’re going to have,” he said.

Words That Help Spanish Speakers Better Understand Mental Health

  • Los estresores: stress
  • La resilencia: resilience
  • Re-humanizar la inmigración: the process of humanizing immigration to counter the dehumanizing of immigration that’s common
  • El trauma: trauma and how people cope
  • La inclusion: inclusion in the context of immigrants integrating into society
  • El proceso de duelo: mourning and processing hurt and confronting loss
  • La ansiedad: anxiety
  • Canalizar las emociones: how to encompass our emotions, channeling emotions
  • El síndrome del inmigrante: the immigrant syndrome and understanding symptoms such as loss of sleep that can lead to anxiety and depression
  • La autoestima: self-esteem, we are our own best advocates
  • El autocuidado: leaning on yourself and others around you for support
  • La fortaleza: the inner strength to make human connections to improve mental health
  • Sources: Hilda Magali De Alba, Manny Reijer, and Magaly Rojas-Gonzalez

The college also makes available to students a 24/7 app-based mental health service called timelycare that Rojas-González said now provides service in Spanish too.

The vast majority of L.A. Mission College’s students have Latin American heritage; 76% were labeled Hispanic in the fall 2022 term. Those who provide campus services say many of these students are Spanish speakers.

Many of these concepts, as embodied in the Spanish or English words, are new to Spanish speakers.

“These are all great words,” said Manny Reijer, a therapist at Mission who grew up speaking Spanish with his Chilean immigrant parents.

“In the United States it’s pretty normalized [to use these words] but when we are coming from Hispanic countries they tend to be newer words that once we come into the United States it’s just something completely different for us,” he said.

Community colleges: A good entry point for Spanish speakers

Because tuition is low and there are few admissions barriers, the community colleges are entry points to higher education. Several years ago the California Community College system upped its Spanish language career education outreach, while the L.A. Community College District has recently expanded the number of classes conducted in Spanish .

“I think we’re seeing some more [therapists] that are [Black, Indigenous, people of color] come into the field,” said Marcos Briano, director of USC’s Physical Education And Mind Body Health department.

He applauds Mission’s efforts. He used to be a clinician at Pasadena City College and still works with the California Community College Mental Health & Wellness Association.

It’s important for Spanish speakers “to see folks that are similar and I think we’re seeing a trend where that’s now shifting, where we have folks who are finishing their masters and our doctoral degrees, and they are being role models,” he said.

Some of the Spanish speakers who attended the Mission workshop were encouraged to ask for help.

“I learned about the immigrant syndrome and that there are many tools to overcome those challenges,” said Carla Bustamante, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador eight years ago and lives in Sylmar.

“We often get stuck in the challenges because we try to overcome the hardships on our own, not realizing there’s a lot of help out there,” she said.

I explore the nuances of how students navigate higher education on their way to graduation. I'm also the host of The Forgotten Revolutionary podcast. Over the last 20-plus years I've covered a lot...