Diana Kelly Levey

Groundbreaking Latina Paves New Path for Mental Health Initiatives Amongst Cultures

February 8, 2016 | Categories: ,

This article was written for the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s website in April 2016.

In May 2016, Maria A. Oquendo, M.D., will become the first Latina president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In addition to early detection and prevention of mental illness amongst all Americans, one particular area that NewYork-Presbyterian psychiatrist Dr. Oquendo plans to concentrate on is mental health and Latino communities.

According to 2005 data from the American Psychological Association, while about one in five Americans identifies as Hispanic (about 17% of the population), only one percent of psychologists identified themselves as Hispanic.  The APA report from 11 years ago found that while 70 percent of non-Hispanic whites return for a second appointment after an initial visit to a psychologist, only 50 percent of Hispanics do. There are some beliefs in the field that Hispanics may have negative attitudes towards mental health and care, but a 2009 report on Psychology Online said that “Hispanics or Latinos may have more positive attitude toward mental health treatment seeking than non-Hispanic whites.” This suggests treatment barriers aren’t due to negative attitudes, but from other structural barriers to care, including language and socioeconomic factors, according to an article on MentalHealthAmerica.net.

“While I’m excited to be the first Latina APA president-elect, I also understand the responsibility to shine a light on mental health the Latino community,” said Dr. Oquendo in an interview on Medium.com. “For instance…we do not talk enough about child abuse, domestic violence or suicide. There are many wonderful things about our cultures that are protective such as the importance of family and extended kinships.”

Dr. Oquendo was born in a city in northwestern Spain, where her father studied medicine. The half-Spanish have Puerto-Rican Latina moved to the United States with her family as a baby. Following in her father’s medical field footsteps, Dr. Oquendo attended Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she said she fell in love with psychiatry, finding the possibility of getting to know patients in depth and make a difference in their lives tremendously appealing to her. Trained in psychiatry at the Payne Whitney Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell in New York, Dr. Oquendo joined the faculty at Columbia upon graduation in 1988. She has been practicing psychiatry for 27 years and has spent much of that time with concentrations in mood disorders, suicidal behavior and cross-cultural psychiatry. Dr. Oquendo is a mother of two and says in the Medium.com article, “As the first APA Latina president-elect, I hope that I can be helpful to women of all backgrounds who are interested in furthering their careers while maintaining strong relationships with their spouses and children.” We look forward to following Dr. Oquendo’s career and leadership at the APA!




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