Throughout IFR’s history, few people have left as lasting a thumbprint on IFR’s programs as Associate Director, German Walteros. Working behind the scenes since 1983, his contributions are everywhere. Given his extensive work in community mental health, we sought out his thoughts on Latinos, COVID-19, and mental health.
Many of us have learned about the high rates of infection in San Francisco, as well as in other parts of the country. This has created great concern and fear for many in the community. German’s broad perspective puts this in logical context: “Let me start with one simple truth: this virus doesn’t discriminate; society does. There isn’t any genetic reason that makes Latinos more susceptible to COVID-19. If there were social and economic disparities before, they will become magnified during a public health crisis. When you are poor, trying to find work, living with other families to save money – no matter who you are – you face increased risks.”
The same holds true for the mental health impacts on Latinos during this time. Ironically, we just ended mental health month in May. Yet, the well-being of Latinos is worsened as a result of COVID-19. Isolation and fear over how to earn a living have led to increased depression and anxiety among Latinos, particularly immigrants. As German explains: “As adults, we expect to have a certain level of mastery over our lives, which gives us a sense of predictability. But if I don’t know what will happen tomorrow morning – if I will have a job, or be able to feed my family – I no longer feel mastery or predictability in my life. This insecurity leads to increased anxiety. Our regular coping mechanisms don’t work, and must be strengthened.”
German further explains how current circumstances can lead to depression. “Depression is often about loss and grief. We have lost our access to our celebrations, community traditions, and interactions with friends and family. As a result, our community is grieving.”
This is where IFR comes in to help participants develop new coping mechanisms to adapt to this new reality. This work is more challenging than it may appear due to past trauma experienced by many in our community. “Crisis triggers past historical and complex trauma,” offers German. “Whether it’s a sense of loss, lack of mastery or trauma associated with an immigrant’s journey, poverty, or living under a repressive government, our community has a long history of losses.”
Just as the social impacts and health disparities facing Latinos seem overwhelming, German displays one of his superpowers to explain things in a clear and straightforward way. “Trauma is caused by unhealthy relationships, but it’s also relationships that heal trauma.”
Herein lies our solution. The power to heal trauma is evident in our ability as a community to come together. It is evident in our ability to step up and create masks (such as those sewn by Indigena Health and Wellness) for those who had none, outreach (such as that provided by Si a la Vida) to those ignored and forgotten, and lunches (such as those by Casa Corazon) for families in need. It is community resilience.
Germán adds, “Despite ongoing hardships, I’ve heard las señoras say, ‘We’ve been here before, and we’ll get through it again.’ Memories of overcoming trauma are ingrained in people. It is one of our collective coping mechanisms. It is part of our past struggles and helps us cope with current ones. Put simply, we shall overcome.”