Fredrick Sandoval, executive director of the National Latino Behavioral Health Association in New Mexico, is the first person in his family to graduate from college. He gravitated toward social work because of a love for the curriculum, but a more personal connection to the field cemented his determination to advocate for mental health services for Latinos.
At twenty-four, his older sister, a US Army soldier, suffered a psychotic break.
“It influenced me the most because it showed me something I had never experienced,” Sandoval remembers, “how a loved one you dearly love and know as a wonderful human being is then stricken by an illness.”
Sandoval’s sister was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and was medically discharged. She was bounced around state hospitals and emergency rooms, which led to a bout of homelessness. Eventually, she was moved into a transitional living unit that allowed her to receive the care she needed—and she was lucky to receive such care. Sandoval remembers there being less than two such programs in the entire state of New Mexico at the time.
Seeing his sister suffer, and witnessing the widespread inaccessibility to mental health resources, spurred Sandoval to action. He paved the way for the first mobile crisis health program in New Mexico (and the first in the country) back in the 1990s. Sandoval also developed the first mental health semi-independent living program in a rural community along the Colorado and New Mexico border, and secured a bilingual Spanish-speaking psychiatrist to serve the same area. And those are just a few of the state- and national-level programs Sandoval developed in his time as deputy secretary of health for the State of New Mexico, as the vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and as a member of the National Latino Mental Health Congress.
“Mental illness is a brain disease,” Sandoval says of his life’s work. “By doing nothing, or not trying to understand what that person is experiencing, it can destroy a life and family. It behooves us to not look the other way.”
According to Sandoval, mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders affect one in four individuals in our country. It does not discriminate among ethnic populations. And though the subject of mental health among Latinos is still an uncommon topic at the dinner table, he says the family-centric nucleus of this community offers a strong support system from which people can draw strength.
“I want people to know that they can become advocates for their loved ones, or even for themselves, if they’re experiencing [mental health issues],” Sandoval says. “There’s nothing more effective than being able to help those we love the most.”
That said, Sandoval is realistic about the challenges inherent in this work. “There’s not going to be an immediate end to it,” he acknowledges. “There’s much more work to be done, and it’s important we do it. [People] need help services and supports that oftentimes are too big and beyond their family’s capacity—it doesn’t mean we abandon them, and it doesn’t mean we ignore their needs. It means that we try to find them the help they need and speak out loudly [for it].”
Sandoval believes that the key to driving change is Latinos asking for what they want and need—both in terms of destigmatizing the topic of mental health and getting government resources for the community.
“We are in a society that requires us to fight for parity and equity—nothing is going to be given to us,” he says. “The Latino voice needs to be heard, will be heard, and can only be heard if we make ourselves available and are at the table. We’re waiting for an invitation, and we might be waiting a very long time—or never be invited. We have to assert ourselves.”
Because it’s in the Latino community’s DNA to convivir, or gather, we have a natural ability to organize and demand more resources that would allow the system of care to be expanded. Sandoval says the easiest way Latinos can begin to advocate for mental health is to share their story—to speak openly about their struggles, but also about the ways they’re staying healthy.
“Behavioral problems are increasing in the Latino community,” he explains. “We need advocates who can fight the stigma in society, and in the Latino community. Advocacy is about having a voice. There are people who are fearful, isolated, or unaware of mental health and mental illness. There are people who aren’t able to articulate what they’re experiencing in English. A good advocate helps bring awareness to those issues, so that the rest of the system knows exactly what we’re struggling with.”
Sandoval has spent his career striving to be exactly that kind of person. At the same time, he knows that advocacy is difficult work, and is only made more strenuous when people don’t take care of themselves. He says things like minimizing stress, eating well, getting sufficient sleep, and avoiding excess amounts of alcohol are as important as going to therapy. And if you’re ever not sure how to help someone, there’s a straightforward remedy, he says.
“Ask them, ‘Como estás?’ It’s not rocket science. It’s not complicated. Follow up and have a conversation.”