How language relates to use of mental health services for California Latinos

An examination of usage of publicly sponsored mental health services by Spanish-speaking Latinos in San Diego revealed significant differences from use patterns by either English-speaking Latinos or Caucasians.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, looked at more than 6,000 patients who used San Diego County's Adult Mental Health Services over a five-year period. The findings are reported in the August issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP), the official journal of the American Psychiatric Association.

"In their use of mental health services, English-speaking Latinos resembled Caucasians more than they resemble Spanish-speaking Latinos," said the study's senior author, David P. Folsom, M.D., Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at UCSD and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

The researchers found that Spanish-speaking Latinos in the San Diego County mental health system had a higher proportion of patients with major depression, but lower proportion of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and substance use disorders.

Hospitalization rates were similar in the three groups, but the Spanish-speaking Latinos were least likely to initially seek mental health care through jail or emergency rooms. The Spanish speakers were more likely to receive initial treatment for severe mental illness in outpatient facilities than were English-speaking Latinos or Caucasians.

Although they had the highest proportion of patients receiving outpatient services, Spanish speakers had the lowest number of visits overall. They were also more likely to be living independently or with family members than homeless or living in nursing homes.

"This article is a fascinating snapshot of the process of integrating Hispanic people into the culture of the United States," said Robert Freedman, M.D., editor-in-chief of AJP, which published the study. "Preserving their native language , either because of recent immigration or due to a family decision , appears to be a better predictor of their use of mental health care services than is ethnicity."

"Disparate health care for racial and ethnic minorities is a major public health concern," said Thomas Insel, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) which funded the research. "Studies such as this will help to better define the needs of these groups with the aim of providing them with better care." The researchers added the possibility that the San Diego County mental health system is particularly effective in providing care to Spanish speakers, and noted that these findings need to be confirmed in other U.S. public mental health systems.

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