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Alice Villatoro and Delilah Garza stand outside of Kenna Hall

Alice Villatoro and Delilah Garza stand outside of Kenna Hall

Expanding Mental Health Conversations in Latinx Communities

Delilah Garza ’23 and Assistant Professor Alice Villatoro examine the stigmatization of mental health in Spanish-speaking communities.

Delilah Garza ’23 and Assistant Professor Alice Villatoro examine the stigmatization of mental health in Spanish-speaking communities. 

When Delilah Garza ’23 was transcribing interviews from a research project focused on Latinos and mental health earlier this year, she and her fellow researchers noticed a surprising trend among participants.

While several of the interviewees spoke Spanish in their day-to-day lives, the research team noticed many preferred talking about mental health in English. It wasn’t just a matter of comfort, but clarity, the respondents said. Certain words or phrases attached to mental health simply don’t exist in Spanish.

“One of the questions that people ask to possibly identify depression is, ‘In the past two weeks, did you feel blue for seven or more days?’ But if you translate that into Spanish, it doesn’t carry the same meaning,” says Garza. “These questions that are used to ensure that a person receives a diagnosis are simply not translatable.”

The limitation of language was more of a symptom than a root cause, however. Participants said in Spanish culture, mental health isn’t often discussed and in Spanish-speaking media the depiction is very stigmatizing. “It’s not informative or it just doesn’t happen at all,” says Public Health Assistant Professor Alice Villatoro, who organized the research project. “If it does happen, it’s stigmatizing and set in a negative light. That’s interesting because we’re talking about a disparity that doesn’t get recognized in the literature.”

These disparities are at the heart of the cross-institutional project, which features student researchers from Columbia University and Santa Clara and a faculty collaborator from Texas A&M. Through virtual interviews with participants across California, Texas, and New York, Villatoro, Garza, and two other Santa Clara students are exploring how Latinx people talk about and address mental health issues, and how their diagnoses—or that of a loved one—has affected their relationships. 

“The study really tries to bring in the perspective of people with lived experiences in the Latino community but also people who have indirect lived experiences—people who may not have their own mental health issues but have close family members and friends who struggle with mental illness,” says Villatoro. “There’s a lot of research to show that your association with somebody who’s dealing with a mental health issue can also be stigmatizing onto you. We wanted to bring in that perspective.”

A Passion Project

The research project is personal for Garza, who faced her own mental health struggles as she adjusted to college life four years ago.

Days before the start of the winter quarter of her freshman year, one of Garza’s closest friends was severely injured in a skiing accident. The aftermath of the accident took its toll on Garza. It was then she realized just how difficult her first year in college had been. As a first-generation college student, she was often the only person of color in her classes, and, unlike most of her peers, juggled a job to help cover tuition. She felt isolated and couldn’t find her footing in her pre-med classes. The pull of family often required her to make trips back home, but she didn’t feel like she could openly discuss her troubles with family.

“I didn't really know how to get help, and I didn’t understand that I needed help,” says Garza. “It took me about a year to find my way again. Through that process, I realized that there is a very big need for conversations about mental health in Hispanic and Latino communities. There’s a lack of understanding and awareness of what mental health issues can look like.”

Garza thrived in the years that followed, immersing herself in the LEAD Scholars and honors programs, as well as the Belles Service Organization and Hermanas Unidas, which provides resources and leadership opportunities to college-age Latinas. Garza is also a fellow with Elevate Tutoring in Mountain View, where she tutors first-generation middle and high school students in STEM. Now in her senior year, she hopes to provide emotional support to others.

Garza is pursuing degrees in psychology and child studies and a minor in public health. Her time at Santa Clara and career path have been shaped, in part, by the promising research she’s conducting alongside Villatoro, who explores mental health disparities among vulnerable populations, focusing primarily on Latinx communities. As the daughter of immigrants raised in southeast LA and a first-gen student, it’s important for Villatoro to dive into these difficult but critical conversations in her own community.

While mental health is stigmatized among many demographics, Villatoro said, despite improvements in recent years, it remains prevalent among some Latinos, who are more likely to think people with a mental illness are dangerous or that frequent feelings of sadness will simply pass without treatment.

“In the past, a lot of anti-stigma efforts focused on educational campaigns. But education alone is insufficient to address stigma, and campaigns didn’t always reach Latinx communities,” she says.

‘I'm So Grateful to Professor Villatoro’

It’s not just the research that has been affirming for Garza, but her mentorship from Villatoro, as well. When Villatoro joined the public health department at Santa Clara two years ago, Garza was close to dropping her public health minor. But after learning that a new faculty member would focus on Latinx mental health issues, she decided to continue with the minor and immediately set out to meet Villatoro.

The research has helped Garza better vocalize her thoughts and think critically. She’s applying to graduate school and hopes to become a marriage and family therapist focused on treating school children. She’s thankful to people like Villatoro who are paving the way for first-gen students like her.

“To have the opportunity to be an undergrad and work with someone who’s doing such amazing work in the field, knowing that our research is going to contribute to real change and to the literature in a way that no one’s ever seen before, that's so exciting to me,” says Garza. “I'm so grateful to Professor Villatoro for this opportunity. It’s been one of the most amazing experiences to be able to contribute to this project.”


Public Health Assistant Professor Alice Villatoro and LEAD Scholar Delilah Garza ’23