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Fighting an equal-opportunity illness

Latina breaks down cultural barriers to mental health services

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Senior Editor

Editor's note: has a business partnership with, which provides custom health content.

Ana Lazu is congratulated by Dr. Jorge Petit at the Welcome Back awards ceremony.
Health Treatment
University of Puerto Rico

NORWICH, Connecticut (MedPage Today) -- Depression is an equal-opportunity illness, capturing the high and low, the illustrious and notorious with equal vigor.

Yet when depression engulfed Ana Lazu she discovered that her culture was a barrier to both treatment and cure.

"As a Latina, I didn't believe in mental illness," Lazu recalled. Psychiatrists and psychologists, she had been taught, " 'just want your money.' In our culture we fix our problems by helping each other."

This was true, she said, even though years of work with a social services agency had exposed her to the mental health community, and she had learned enough about symptoms of depression to know that she needed help. She just couldn't jump the cultural divide to seek it from a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Without treatment, her depression deepened and she became suicidal. Finally she was hospitalized, but the hospital experience drove her ever deeper into depression.

"I didn't understand anything they were telling me, and they [therapists] didn't understand what I was telling them," she said. Meanwhile, well-meaning friends told her that the most likely cause of her troubles was "brujeria" -- a spell or curse.

Culturally, Lazu says, she was conditioned to believe in "brujeria" and doubt the antidepressants prescribed by doctors.

With no support from her friends she faced "a double stigma -- the stigma of mental illness and the shame that I felt from my culture. I spiraled down to the deepest depth of depression. I didn't leave my house. I couldn't leave my house. I remember one day wanting a Pepsi. I live across the street from a store and I would go to that store to buy a Pepsi -- in my mind I would go over and over again. But I would never leave my house. It was exhausting."

The year was 1995 and Lazu was 40 years old. She had been on her own since age 13 when her mother abandoned her on the streets of Brooklyn. In the intervening years she had survived two abusive marriages, raised four children, and "always worked and went to school. Always. Sometimes I would work two jobs and go to school."

Now, it was her children who were urging her to "get up, go out," but she remained at home, behind shuttered windows and locked doors.

Day by day she again edged closer to suicide, until one day, "I don't know why, but I just decided that I must use what strength I had to find help."

She turned to the information highway. "I searched the Internet for information about depression in Latinas. I found some information on the University of Puerto Rico Web site and that gave me my start," she said.

Eventually, her online search for answers led her to a Native American therapist who combined western medicine with "culturally sensitive" techniques such as prayer and the lighting of candles in a treatment regimen that Lazu said worked for her.

Hands across a kitchen table

The bustling Norwich Latino community is close knit, and word travels fast, even behind locked doors. During her months of illness, word reached Lazu about other Latinos who were battling depression and other mental illness. All of them, she said, isolated by the shame that tracked mental illness in the Latino community. She got in touch with them and invited them to her house.

"We started with five people meeting in my kitchen, just a small group brought together by culture and illness," she said.

They gathered around her kitchen table because "in our culture, the kitchen is the center of the home and the family. We met there to build a new family," she said.

As word spread, more people joined the kitchen table meetings. From five people, the group grew to 50. Now too big for Lazu's kitchen, the group found a home at a local Unitarian Church. And along with a new location, the group now had a new name -- Latinos Unidos Siempre.

LUS, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to assisting Latinos in "removing barriers to mental health and addiction services." Since its founding, LUS has moved from the Unitarian Church to a permanent home at the offices of the Southeast Mental Health Agency in Norwich.

Over the years Lazu has continually expanded services and outreach into the Latina community. The most ambitious addition is Primos, a training program designed to "help students learn how to overcome cultural and language barriers so that they can secure quality care for themselves."

National recognition

Her activities with Latino mental health have not gone unnoticed. She is a regular columnist for the Norwich newspaper, serves on a handful of community boards, including the Southeastern Mental Health Authority and the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, and nationally she serves on the board of the National Latino Behavioral Health Association.

Ten years after she "hit bottom," Lazu spends her days working as director of LUS and squeezing in college classes at night, observing that, "I've been going to school for so many years, they should just give me a Ph.D. and be done with it." Her spare time is spent "enjoying, but not raising," 11 grandchildren.

And occasionally, "something special" comes her way.

That was the case on Saturday when Lazu received the 2005 Welcome Back Award for primary care. Sponsored by Eli Lilly, Welcome Back Awards is a national program that recognizes outstanding individuals who make a difference in the depression community. In addition to her award, a $10,000 contribution from Lilly will be made on Lazu's behalf to LUS and to the National Latino Behavioral Health Association, for its Josie Romero Scholarship Fund.

Asked about receiving news of the award, Lazu said, "I laughed and I cried. That is something we do in my family."

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