Meaningful mental health panel works to end minority stigma

  • Published
  • By Capt. Cristina Curl
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

“I’m just an over thinker. I just worry too much. It’s just nerves.” 

These were the thoughts I repeated to myself for decades because admitting the truth – that I might have a mental health disorder – was not an option. Then the pandemic hit, and with it, so did the weight of the mental health disorder I had been secretly battling for more than two decades. 

In May 2020, one month after reaching out for help, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The medical appointment and diagnosis took less than an hour. So why did it take me nearly two decades to admit to myself what everyone around me clearly saw? And why was I terrified of telling my family that I was starting anxiety medication? 

The answer is rooted in deep cultural beliefs ingrained in the Hispanic/Latino community that mental illness is a sign of weakness. We do not discuss our problems publicly, and that, as Latinos, we can overcome any obstacle through hard work. Like many other Hispanics and minority groups, I subconsciously internalized this narrative to my own detriment. While I have spent the majority of the last 10 years overcoming this cultural battle, I had never attended a mental health panel that addressed these barriers to mental health care in a way that spoke directly to me… until now. 

On April 29, I had the privilege of attending the Hispanic Empowerment and Advancement Team’s, or HEAT, Mental Health Real Talk: Mental Health and Minority Communities. The panel – moderated by Capt. Christine De Jesus – featured Lt. Col. Sonia Pons, Maj. Cristina Benitez, Maj. Carlos Salazar, and Capt. Tinamarie Castro. All four panelists are mental health professionals across the Department of the Air Force with one common characteristic: they belong to a minority group, which provides them with a unique perspective on mental health and resiliency within the minority community. 

The panelists addressed hard-hitting topics like how minority communities view and discuss mental health matters like suicide and suicidal ideations, the lack of training provided to mental health professionals on cultural practices and beliefs amongst minority groups that often create unintended barriers to mental healthcare, and how the Department of the Air Force can lead the charge by recognizing where gaps in access to mental healthcare for minority communities exist.

With tears in my eyes, I listened to these four panelists discuss and normalize the logistical and emotional barriers that keep so many minority groups from seeking the mental healthcare they need. The hundreds of comments from more than 60 attendees confirmed that there were many of us in the audience feeling the same way. 

“This is the best mental health panel I’ve ever sat in on.” 

“My mom called in and said she was on the verge of tears but needed to hear it.” 

“We could keep talking about this for three more hours.” 

Despite being a virtual panel, you could feel the relief in every comment in the chat thread as minority members let down their guard and refused to accept the barriers as the status quo any longer. 

At the end of the 90-minute presentation, one thing was abundantly clear: we have a lot more to discuss. 

The HEAT will continue these much-needed conversations during Department of the Air Force Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations this fall, and I encourage all servicemembers to participate. Whether you identify as a member of a minority group or not, these are the conversations that make us better leaders, better Airmen, and better advocates for those who are struggling, and just as importantly, for ourselves.