Mental Health in Mexico

It seems that the topics of deportation and the matter of separating parents from their children has been everywhere lately. This made me want to explore (setting aside any arguments about the legal/political issues associated with this on either side) what is this really doing to these kids, these families, and what kind of mental health treatment is available in Mexico for these people? How is mental health treatment approached in Mexico?

So what really happens when a child experiences a trauma like being separated from a parent? Childhood is when a lot our core beliefs, patterns of thought, and coping skills develop. This is a time that really sets the stage for how we relate to others and the world around us. A trauma like this certainly could lead to depressive, anxiety or trauma related disorders as well as problems with attachment. When a trauma like this happens it may lead the child to view the world as an unsafe place, have difficulty trusting others, develop feelings of inferiority, or have difficulty establishing their own self-identity. It would not be unusual for the parents in these situations to  develop extreme feelings of guilt, hopelessness and subsequent depressive, anxiety, or trauma related disorders. Personality disorders, especially Borderline Personality Disorder are also very strongly related to unhealthy attachment and fear of abandonment. The cultural importance of family puts these individuals at even higher risk.

I wondered if providers had been seeing an increase in people seeking mental health treatment specifically related to these issues. So I went down to Tijuana’s only psychiatric hospital, Hospital de Salud Mental de Tijuana and met with some of the providers to learn about the treatment and perspective of mental health in Mexico. While the providers I spoke with said they may have seen a very modest increase in hospitalizations/treatment specifically related to these issues it didn’t seem to have the major impact I suspected it would.

There is still a fair stigma about mental health issues in the U.S. and the providers I spoke with felt there was a similar if not harsher stigma about mental health treatment in Mexico. This stigma often discourages people from getting mental health treatment, frequently a person may be afraid to tell his or her family there is a need to seek treatment, or may be actively discouraged to do so if it is discussed. Mental health conditions are frequently seen as something that should can be managed by religious or family support. This puts individuals experiencing a mental health condition in a very difficult spot and seemed to be the primary barrier to seeking treatment.

I toured the facility for about two hours while the doctors I met with patiently answered my 1,001 questions. About five minutes into the tour it hit me like a Mac truck, these people have it right. There were some stark differences in how treatment is approached and I started to take note of what we need to bring to the states.

1. Length of stay. The average length of stay for inpatients is about 2 weeks. That is the average, frequently stays are 3-4 weeks. I compared this to the inpatient units I’ve worked on where the average length of stay is probably 2-3 days. If someone’s length of stay is approaching a week administration usually starts to sweat. Why is this? The most basic answer is insurance coverage. Generally speaking an insurance company will only provide coverage for a psychiatric hospitalization if a person meets one of three criteria: they are an imminent danger to themselves, others, or are gravely disabled (cannot provide for basic needs like clothing, shelter, food, or water, due to a psychiatric illness). This means that people are generally not hospitalized until their symptoms are so severe it becomes a liability if not treated. What’s more, the minute a patient no longer meets this criteria insurance coverage stops (some really good plans may authorize a few additional days, but this is pretty rare). This basically means we are using inpatient treatment as basically a means to stabilize someone to the bare minimum level, or until they are no longer assessed to be a liability.

2.  Holistic treatment. This kind of goes along with the idea of what really is the purpose of treatment, to simply stabilize someone, or actually provide treatment of the symptoms. Most inpatient units in the states will offer things like group therapy, AA meetings, and maybe art therapy, these activities are fairly minimal and not the largest part of treatment. I was amazed to see at Hospital de Salud Mental de Tijuana they had displays of expansive works of art therapy done by patients, there were volley ball courts, a gym, yoga classes, even a garden that patients tend to and what is grown is used in the meals served that are specially planned by a nutritionist. We know that good nutrition, exercise, a sense of community and purpose are vital for our mental health and yet we put such a minimal focus on it.

3. Community outreach. As mentioned above the stigma about mental health treatment is prevalent across borders, these providers are rolling up their sleeves to fight it. They host meetings, and also visit schools and other community facilities to provide education about mental health to the community. Starting in elementary school these providers are actively working to change how the next generation perceives mental health.

I left the facility dumbstruck and with one thought. As providers, as a community and society we need to be better. I believe that the vast majority of providers do want to give the best care possible and heal their patients but become limited by administrative and financial barriers. like any other kind of medical issue, doing primary prevention is without a doubt the best thing we can do, we first need to start educating our kids about mental health treatment and  and we need to be better about community outreach. We also need to fight for the ability to actually be able to treat our patients instead of giving them the bare minimum level of stabilization. It’s up to us to talk to our legislators, and to push for expanded coverage of treatment. Let’s be better.