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SIMS campaign reaches out to Latino musicians

Language, insurance can be barriers

Nancy Flores
Singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo says a general mistrust of the health care industry was common in his family.

Saxophone player Carlos Sosa holds on to certain childhood memories about his mother with a fierce grip the way they held hands, the nights he slept on her bed next to her and the dreaded phone call that notified his family of her death after battling a brain tumor. At 9 years old, Sosa buried the devastating emotions that came with her death. They would show up later in life.

In Austin in his late 20s and early 30s, Sosa was pouring himself into his music, hustling like other working musicians to make a living off his passion. He didn't have time for distractions, much less depression.

But then he was forced to pause. He experienced a relationship breakup that unearthed the feelings of his mother's loss, feelings that he had yet to work through.

"I had a huge house and I was sleeping on the floor of my living room watching TV until I passed out," said Sosa, who is touring with musician Jason Mraz. Sosa wouldn't eat for weeks, wouldn't leave his house, except to go to the liquor store. He had fallen into a depression, but Sosa didn't know what was happening to him. He spent the next year drifting into darkness.

Like Sosa, many Latinos struggle to take the next step and seek professional help when it comes to treating mental health issues such as depression. In an effort to combat this phenomenon, Sosa and other musicians have joined a SIMS Foundation campaign aimed at destigmatizing mental health issues in the Latino community, especially among Austin-area Latino musicians. The nonprofit provides access to and financial support for mental health and addiction recovery services for Austin-area musicians and their families.

With Latinos making up only 7 percent of SIMS clientele last year despite Austin's rich Latin music culture, "we knew that people were not coming in and asking for help," said SIMS Foundation Executive Director Tricia Forbes. About 25 percent of U.S. adults have a mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost two-thirds of those adults with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment, and racial and ethnic minorities are even less likely to get help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

During this year's Pachanga Latino Music Festival, SIMS launched a popular public service video as part of the outreach effort featuring local star power such as Alejandro Escovedo, Little Joe Hernandez, David Garza, Gina Chavez, Ruben Ramos and Sosa.

Finding diverse ways to reach Latino musicians, such as the "No Tenga Pena (Don't Be Embarrassed)" video, has been the mission of SIMS' Latino outreach committee, which includes members Rose Reyes, former director of music marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Pachanga Festival organizer Rich Garza. But understanding the numerous cultural and social barriers that often prevent Latinos from seeking help in the first place was the initial step for SIMS.

Singer-songwriter Escovedo remembers his father taking him to a curandera (folk healer or shaman) whenever he got sick. Raised on herbal remedies such as volcanic oil, Escovedo said a fear and general mistrust of the health care industry was common in his family. Openly talking about any mental health issues, he said, was taboo.

"Those things were kept within the family," Escovedo said. "People thought you were naturally crazy or did something wrong to feel (depressed or anxious), and so you were being punished. Maybe feeling guilty comes from the church."

Having been raised by "tough as nails" grandparents, Sosa found it difficult at first to seek help, and an innate sense of machismo flowed through him.

""I thought, ‘I don't need any help. I can do this on my own. I can figure it out.' " He learned about enduring hardships alone from his family. Sosa's grandmother has lost two children and two husbands. "If you're upset about something, you get over it. I guess that's how I was raised," he said. "You don't have time to be depressed."

Sosa felt conflicted at first. He thought seeking help would make him a huge failure and, more importantly, make him feel like less of a man.

A Los Angeles-based study identified language barriers and a lack of health insurance as additional factors that prevent mental health outreach among Latinos. SIMS also identified a lack of readily available Latino mental health providers as an added barrier.

To help remedy this in its organization, SIMS ensures that mental health professionals it works with in the community are culturally competent, and that some are bilingual and open to taking new clients.

Forbes added that although many Latino musicians don't need a Spanish interpreter, simply having some available creates a seemingly safer and more comfortable environment for some Latinos. When Latinos do reach out about a problem, SIMS has found, it's usually to their family or church.

"There's a belief among the Latino population of being self-supporting," said Jennifer Vocelka, a SIMS staff clinician. "... and as we're able to break down that wall and those stigmas, they see that they're not weak. Everyone needs help. And that's what it is — just help. A therapist is not going to make every decision for you."

In addition to the barriers faced by Latinos, being a musician adds to the challenges. A romanticized stereotype of the struggling, moody artist can be dangerous, said Lila Tenenbown, SIMS outreach and communications director.

"If your accountant or teacher were at their job falling down drunk ... there would (more likely) be an intervention," Forbes said.

Tejano music legend Little Joe Hernandez agrees. "We're admired, in some cases, and because of that admiration we're allowed to get away with things. We shouldn't have that kind of shield. People put up with us when it comes to addiction. They are afraid or embarrassed to say, ‘Hey, you're messed up.' "

Then there are the frustrations of life on the road or the constant up-and-down nature of the business. Escovedo will be on tour throughout Europe and the U.S. this summer, and that's time away from his children.

"It's a much lonelier life than expected," he said by phone from London. "Sometimes that leads to problems that are unmanageable. Not only does the music suffer, but sometimes there are breaking points. Being a musician can take its toll on both the musician and his family."

An added barrier for all musicians, Forbes said, are thoughts such as "Am I going to lose my creative edge if I go on medication? Or what if I won't be able to write songs as well if I don't have these mood swings?"

"One of our messages to all musicians is that you can be creative and happy," she said. "We combat that notion that you have to be screwed up in some way to create, because we know that people die all the time. And you can't create anything if you're dead."

The SIMS staff acknowledge that just as Latin music has a wide-ranging sound, their Latino outreach efforts should not be "one size fits all." As their research becomes more sophisticated, they hope to tailor their approach to the different kinds of musicians within the diverse genre. Though woven with a common thread, each Latino experience is unique, and so is the experience of each musician.

For Sosa, change didn't come until he took ownership of the idea that seeking professional help for his depression wouldn't make him less of a man. That didn't mean he wasn't scared.

He still remembers calling SIMS petrified and then walking into the offices almost shaking. But once he understood taking that step would actually make him a stronger man, Sosa embraced the road to recovery, with the help of a therapist.

Contact Nancy Flores at 912-2559

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