Addiction in Immigrant and Latino Populations

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Language a Barrier to Reaching Latino Populations for Mental Health Services.
Immigrant Latinos are healthier, physically and mentally, when they arrive in the U.S. than later, research finds. A dearth of Latino health-care professionals hurts.

by Chris Adams, National Press Foundation

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Opioid and other substance use among Latino youth is slightly higher than for other groups. Several studies have found that Latinos in their late teens are using drugs at rates that are equivalent to or higher than other racial or ethnic groups, according to a review from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey in 2017 found that high school-age Latinos had a higher prevalence of illicit drug use (16.1%) and prescription opioid misuse (15.1%) than the total high school population (14% for both) and other races and ethnicities.

Mental health problems pop up after immigrants are settled in the U.S. Pierluigi Mancini, who directs the National Hispanic and Latino ATTC, said that research shows immigrant Latinos are healthier when they arrive in the United States but become less so the longer they are in the country. “Some of those issues have to do with how this country works on the clock,” Mancini said. “Time is money, and you have these messages of discipline when it comes to time and the stressors of buying a home, buying a car, and you buy things on credit. Some of these things do not exist in places where many immigrant Latinos come from. … People here end up getting more stress because of that.”

Substance use problems also emerge after immigrating to the United States. Mancini said that adult Latinos who come to the U.S. only drinking alcohol – or not even drinking alcohol – within five years were following U.S. social norms and getting into other drugs: marijuana, cocaine, opioids. The use patterns for alcohol were different than for other populations. In the general population, people drank more frequently, but in Hispanic and Latino communities, there was more binge drinking.

A dearth of Latino health care workers makes it harder to reach Latino people in crisis. That’s partly due to the language barriers. Of Latinos and Hispanics in the U.S., more than half speak English “very well” or speak only English, while the other half speak English “less than very well,” according to 2018 numbers. “That’s problematic, because when you’re in crisis, when you are addicted, when you have a mental health issue, when you are suicidal, we revert back to our original language,” Mancini said. That combined with the fact that Latino health care workers are underrepresented makes it harder to build a connection between patients and health care workers.

Resources are available for the medical community to better reach Latino populations. The National Hispanic and Latino Addiction Technology Transfer Center, which Mancini directs, is part of the National Latino Behavioral Health Association and works to train people to serve the Hispanic and Latino community needing behavioral health treatment and recovery. The center is also part of the federal government’s ATTC Network, which has regional offices around the country as well as national offices focused on issues such as Latino health.

Speaker: Pierluigi Mancini, Project Director, National Hispanic and Latino ATTC (Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network)

This program is sponsored by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, with support from Arnold Ventures. NPF retains sole responsibility for programming and content.

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