COVID-19 exacerbating challenges for Latino patients

Disproportionate burden of pandemic complicates mental health care


Pamela Montano, MD, recalls the recent case of a patient with bipolar II disorder who was improving after treatment with medication and therapy when her life was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID pandemic has highlighted the structural inequities that affect the Latino population [both] immigrant and non-immigrant,” said Dr. Pamela Montano. Courtesy Dr. Pamela Montano

“The COVID pandemic has highlighted the structural inequities that affect the Latino population [both] immigrant and nonimmigrant,” said Dr. Pamela Montano.

The patient, who is Puerto Rican, lost two cousins to the virus, two of her brothers fell ill, and her sister became sick with coronavirus, said Dr. Montano, director of the Latino Bicultural Clinic at Gouverneur Health in New York. The patient was then left to care for her sister’s toddlers along with the patient’s own children, one of whom has special needs.

“After this happened, it increased her anxiety,” Dr. Montano said in an interview. “She’s not sleeping, and she started having panic attacks. My main concern was how to help her cope.”

Across the country, clinicians who treat mental illness and behavioral disorders in Latino patients are facing similar experiences and challenges associated with COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic response. Current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death from the novel coronavirus among racial and ethnic groups, particularly black and Hispanic patients. The disparities are likely attributable to economic and social conditions more common among such populations, compared with non-Hispanic whites, in addition to isolation from resources, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent New York City Department of Health study based on data that were available in late April found that deaths from COVID-19 were substantially higher for black and Hispanic/Latino patients than for white and Asian patients. The death rate per 100,000 population was 209.4 for blacks, 195.3 for Hispanics/Latinos, 107.7 for whites, and 90.8 for Asians.

“The COVID pandemic has highlighted the structural inequities that affect the Latino population [both] immigrant and nonimmigrant,” said Dr. Montano, a board member of the American Society of Hispanic Psychiatry and the officer of infrastructure and advocacy for the Hispanic Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association. “This includes income inequality, poor nutrition, history of trauma and discrimination, employment issues, quality education, access to technology, and overall access to appropriate cultural linguistic health care.”

Navigating challenges

For mental health professionals treating Latino patients, COVID-19 and the pandemic response have generated a range of treatment obstacles.

Dr. Jacqueline Posada

The transition to telehealth for example, has not been easy for some patients, said Jacqueline Posada, MD, consultation-liaison psychiatry fellow at the Inova Fairfax Hospital–George Washington University program in Falls Church, Va., and an APA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration minority fellow. Some patients lack Internet services, others forget virtual visits, and some do not have working phones, she said.

“I’ve had to be very flexible,” she said in an interview. “Ideally, I’d love to see everybody via video chat, but a lot of people either don’t have a stable Internet connection or Internet, so I meet the patient where they are. Whatever they have available, that’s what I’m going to use. If they don’t answer on the first call, I will call again at least three to five times in the first 15 minutes to make sure I’m giving them an opportunity to pick up the phone.”

In addition, Dr. Posada has encountered disconnected phones when calling patients for appointments. In such cases, Dr. Posada contacts the patient’s primary care physician to relay medication recommendations in case the patient resurfaces at the clinic.

In other instances, patients are not familiar with video technology, or they must travel to a friend or neighbor’s house to access the technology, said Hector Colón-Rivera, MD, an addiction psychiatrist and medical director of the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha Behavioral Health Program, a nonprofit organization based in the Philadelphia area. Telehealth visits frequently include appearances by children, family members, barking dogs, and other distractions, said Dr. Colón-Rivera, president of the APA Hispanic Caucus.

Dr. Hector Colon-Rivera

Dr. Hector Colon-Rivera

“We’re seeing things that we didn’t used to see when they came to our office – for good or for bad,” said Dr. Colón-Rivera, an attending telemedicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It could be a good chance to meet our patient in a different way. Of course, it creates different stressors. If you have five kids on top of you and you’re the only one at home, it’s hard to do therapy.”

Psychiatrists are also seeing prior health conditions in patients exacerbated by COVID-19 fears and new health problems arising from the current pandemic environment. Dr. Posada recalls a patient whom she successfully treated for premenstrual dysphoric disorder who recently descended into severe clinical depression. The patient, from Colombia, was attending school in the United States on a student visa and supporting herself through child care jobs.

“So much of her depression was based on her social circumstance,” Dr. Posada said. “She had lost her job, her sister had lost her job so they were scraping by on her sister’s husband’s income, and the thing that brought her joy, which was going to school and studying so she could make a different life for herself than what her parents had in Colombia, also seemed like it was out of reach.”

Dr. Colón-Rivera recently received a call from a hospital where one of his patients was admitted after becoming delusional and psychotic. The patient was correctly taking medication prescribed by Dr. Colón-Rivera, but her diabetes had become uncontrolled because she was unable to reach her primary care doctor and couldn’t access the pharmacy. Her blood sugar level became elevated, leading to the delusions.

“A patient that was perfectly stable now is unstable,” he said. “Her diet has not been good enough through the pandemic, exacerbating her diabetes. She was admitted to the hospital for delirium. Patients are suffering from changes in their daily structure affecting not only their mental health, but their health in general.”


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