On a holistic level, Puerto Rico is not doing well—politically, economically, and socially. Since 2006, the island has been in a painful recession that has resulted in high levels of unemployment or underemployment, poverty, a drastic reduction of population, and higher levels of crime. Now, in actual real-time, the island is moving towards bankruptcy and a very indefinite future.
All of this has undoubtedly taken a toll on the population’s mental health and mental health services, which makes Juan Vélez Court’s presence at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day in Washington, DC today all the more important as he represents the Puerto Rican community and their collective perspective. As a resident of San Juan, Juan has seen up close just how a person’s nationality—particularly Puerto Rican nationality—can influence their understanding of mental health.
“A lot of Latino communities, we have what people call ‘machismo.’ Our culture is very much about you keeping your problems to yourself, especially if you’re a man,” Juan explains. “We have all these people who know they need treatment, support and somebody to speak to, but they’re too afraid to because their spouse, parents or co-workers may find out.” Due to this threatening atmosphere, there is a lot of anxiety cultivated in families around mental health treatment and people are afraid to raise their hand and say they need help. Unfortunately, Juan says, this can cost lives.
Juan knows this all too well because he considers himself one of the lucky ones who has survived. From the age of 9, Juan battled extreme depression, generalized anxiety and OCD, and didn’t think he would ever see a way out. “I was always under the impression that I was going to commit suicide by the time I was 23 years old,” he says. “I remember telling myself this since I was around 12 to 13 years old—that I’m not going to amount to much, that I was just going to commit suicide at 23.” It wasn’t until he finally asked himself what he really wanted from life that he started viewing treatment not as a sign of weakness, but as an active initiative in leading a better life.
This distinction is crucial in breaking the stigma people have towards both mental illness and mental health professionals. Juan suggests that if a person starts to view treatment professionals as “collaborators” and “support” rather than a crutch that he or she will be dependent on forever, getting treatment will just become a normal part of a person’s life. Just like you get up, make coffee, and have a bowl of oatmeal, Juan says that people can and should make treatment “part of your routine.”
Today, Juan is 27 and works side by side with his mother at Fundación NuestraMente, a non-profit organization they co-founded together in 2011. He credits his wife and family for being an important source of support for him. The group is heavily involved in outreach to students, professors and parents in order to be a path of reference of hope and persistence. Through support groups, or what Juan refers to as “extended family sessions,” the program is a place for people struggling with mental illness to talk to others and be part of a community. On top of that, Juan travels around to speak on the importance of peer support in a person’s recovery, much like he is doing today at The George Washington University Jack Morton Auditorium, alongside U.S. Olympians Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, who are Honorary Chairpersons of the SAMHSA event.
With Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy still teetering in the air, it’s hard to imagine how things will be like even two months from now. What is, in fact, clear is the negative impact on mental health that the citizens of Puerto Rico will suffer for many years to come due to the uncertainty and deterioration of the quality of life. This shows that more than ever do we need to spread hope and awareness throughout our nation, from sea to shining sea.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day 2017: “Partnering for Help and Hope” will focus on the importance of integrating behavioral health and primary care for children, youth, and young adults with mental and/or substance use disorders, as well as those who may experience chronic illness. Watch the livestream of the event at www.samhsa.gov/children.