By María Palma
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted millions of families in the United States, whether due to job loss, disruption to schooling or even worse, the loss of a loved one. But one of the most abruptly and severely affected groups have been Hispanic families.
Health experts are raising concerns about the long lasting consequences the pandemic year may have specifically on Latino children.
“The CDC has come out saying that Latinos are dying at nearly three times the rate of white people,” said Dr. Gabriela Olavarrieta, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are several reasons why Latino families experience more obstacles, but the most common among these are their multi-generational households, language barriers, limited internet access and frontline jobs.
“We’ve also seen disparities in socioeconomic status, access to health care and work-related exposure to the virus. And culturally speaking, Latinos in larger households have a limited ability to isolate themselves from relatives,” said Olavarrieta. “All of this increases the chances of the pandemic being a traumatic event for Latino children, specifically more so than for their white counterparts.”
The study further notes that “households with Latino and Black children experienced three or more hardships at twice the rate of households with Asian and white children.”
The Hispanic/Latino community in Nevada accounted for 41% of COVID-19 infections and 25% of deaths as of November 2020.
A shared struggle
Rut Corona is a Reno mother of four who has had to cope with problems the pandemic has left in her family. They receive therapy and help from The Children’s Cabinet, a local non-profit organization that provides assistance to low-income families.
Corona, who came to Reno from Sinaloa, Mexico, seven years ago, and currently works as a janitorial custodian at Renown Hospital, shares a household with her husband, her 75-year-old father, her sister and her four children.
A few years ago, her 12-year-old son was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition she said worsened with the pandemic.
SPANISH: “Pedimos ayuda porque mi niño empezó a tener problemas en la escuela, era más lento que el resto, hiperactivo y agresivo. Intentamos darle pastillas pero lo mantenían inmóvil, parecía que estaba drogado y salían 300 dólares, así que dejó de tomarlas. Un día él me dijo ‘Te prometo que voy a ser un niño bueno, que voy a hacer lo que tú me digas, pero no me des pastillas’.”
“My child started having problems at school, he was slower than the rest, was more hyperactive and aggressive,” she said. “We tried to give him pills but they kept him immobile. He looked like he was on drugs and they cost $300, so he stopped taking them. One day he told me ‘I promise I will be a good boy, I will do what you tell me to do, but don’t give me pills.’”
Corona said that during the pandemic, her son continued school online and they moved houses, which resulted in him not meeting any new friends.
SPANISH: “Yo creo que emocionalmente sí afecta más a los niños porque ellos de repente ya no van a la escuela, ya no ven a los amigos ni a la familia. Ha sido muy difícil explicarle a los niños”, dijo Corona.
“I think emotionally does affect the children more because they suddenly don’t go to school, they don’t see their friends or family. It has been very difficult to explain to the children,” said Corona.
Jessica Rosas, a licensed clinical social worker at The Children’s Cabinet, who has taken on the Corona family’s case, said that although they work with families of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, “approximately 40% of the families that come to the organization are Latino.”
Rosas has seen many different levels of stress in children linked to the pandemic.
“Children just show the symptoms of anxiety without knowing how to put words to it, other children just start struggling with school,” she said. “We’re also seeing depression because quarantine equals isolating. With the pandemic, that’s a traumatic experience for some. And when the stress level of parents goes up, that trickles down to our children.”
On the other side, parents with school-aged children had to become teachers during the pandemic.
“If you’re Latino, you might not speak English or you might not understand the internet,” said Rosas.
Corona mentioned that one of the most difficult things was being able to help her son with his homework and how she learned to value teachers.
SPANISH: “Yo no hablo el idioma y para mi fue muy difícil poder apoyar a los niños en cuestión de la escuela, el que estuvo ahí fue mi esposo porque para mí fue muy difícil, y yo creo que para ellos también”.
“I don’t speak the language and for me it was very difficult to be able to support the children in terms of school, the one who was there was my husband because for me it was very difficult, and I think for them too,” Corona said.
Corona also admitted that explaining to her youngest children what the coronavirus was without making them fearful was a challenge.
SPANISH: “Se les dijo que era un bichito feo que se metía cuando tú salías, lo olías y se metía a tu cuerpo, y que las personas mayores y menores eran los que no podían tener ese bichito adentro, porque podían enfermarse, ir al hospital o incluso morir. Entonces me decían “no me quiero morir, no me quiero morir”. Incluso mi niña más pequeña quería que no la tocaran y se aisló, y hasta se ponía el cubrebocas en la casa. Ella sintió más temor”.
“They were told that it was an ugly little bug that got inside when you went out, you smelled it and it got inside your body, and that older and younger people were the ones who could not have that little bug inside, because they could get sick, go to the hospital or even die,” she said “So they would tell me ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die…’ Even my youngest child wanted not to be touched and isolated herself, and even wore a mask in the house. She was more afraid.”
While it’s hard to predict with certainty what the consequences will be, Rosas said, “we will definitely see an increase in mental health needs, and we’re going to continue to see an increase in both physical health and mental health because they are related.”
For her part, psychologist Olavarrieta said that when children are struggling to cope with stress through increased anxiety, fear, sadness and worry that are brought on by the pandemic, “they can exhibit unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, changes in activity level, and more possible behavioral problems, even some substance abuse, or some difficulty with attention and concentration.”
Now that schools are planning to go back to classes in person, she recommends parents and teachers be understanding.
“We need to make sure that we’re all kind of adjusting our expectations about how a child should be doing academically and psychologically because, with everything that’s happened, it’s normal to not be yourself or have difficulty when so much is taken away from you,” Olavarrieta said. “Kids have lost a lot, things just like celebrations, graduations, school events, camps, things that really matter to them and could really be related to real developmental milestones.”
Will the pandemic be a traumatic event for children?
“A lot of times one of the biggest barriers is not knowing who to ask or not knowing that it’s okay to ask for help.”
A traumatic event happens when someone is physically threatened or they witness something that is happening to someone else and there is physical harm and danger involved. Examples can be serious accidents, natural disasters and experiencing violence, long-term stress, neglect, abuse or discrimination.
Olavarrieta explained that trauma can look really different between individuals.
“How the traumatic event itself doesn’t define whether or not something is traumatic. It’s actually the experience of trauma. It’s about the individual’s reaction to the upsetting event. But we could definitely expect some kind of impact on kids, but it would be difficult to say if it’s traumatic or due to adjustment,” she said.
She also said it is important to differentiate when an event is traumatic or the child is experiencing adjustment disorder.
“Adjustment disorder is a group of symptoms like stress or feeling sad or hopeless. This can happen after someone goes through a stressful life event, like a pandemic,” she described.
Therefore, there is hope that the pandemic will not become a defining aspect in the life of the younger generations.
“It’s different than experiencing a traumatic event because the child is not in danger,” Olavarrieta said. “When that one stressor has kind of ended, and things are kind of going back to normal, the symptoms don’t usually persist for more than an additional six months. So that’s kind of hopeful in the sense that hopefully, we will see a bounce back in children.”
Licensed clinical social worker Rosas thinks that it’s really important that we destigmatize mental health in times like these, and encourages everyone to seek professional help if needed.
“People need to know that if someone needs help, they can ask for help, because a lot of times one of the biggest barriers is not knowing who to ask or not knowing that it’s okay to ask for help.”
For next year, Corona hopes that the pandemic ends so families can go back to normalcy.
SPANISH: “Le pediría a Dios que quite esta enfermedad… Me gustaría que mis niños se convirtieran en profesionales”.
“I would like to ask God to end this… I would like my children to get educated and become professionals,” she said.
Corona lost her mother to the pandemic and saw several people enter the hospital while she cleaned the building as part of her job. She said this made her appreciate life and family.
SPANISH: “Le di valor a todo, al despertar, a estar vivo, a que mi familia está sobreviviendo a esta enfermedad. Salir al patio, comerse un sándwich o una sopa, lo haces feliz, disfrutas más los momentos con tus hijos”.
“I gave value to everything, to wake up, to be alive, that my family is surviving this disease. Going out in the yard, eating a sandwich or a soup, you make it happy, you enjoy the moments with your children more,” she said.