Kat Novoa knew there was a problem in her community of South Los Angeles, formerly known as South Central, a mostly Hispanic and Black area that includes neighborhoods like Crenshaw and separate cities such as Compton and Watts. Novoa has sought to address the mental health crisis in her community by providing various exercising sessions and allocating the latter part of class for meditation.
In 2018, she founded Babes of Wellness, a safe space that provides women the chance to build physical strength while simultaneously healing generational emotional trauma. It’s the first Latina-owned wellness studio in Compton, even though the 96,000-person city is 68 percent Latino.
“There is nothing out there like this. I think with my own struggles and wanting that community, I saw there was a need. I asked myself, ‘Why not now? If not me, then who else?'” Novoa told Yahoo News.
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, mental health experts are warning of another crisis growing beneath the surface. A study released this month by the Centers and Disease Control and Prevention reports that while suicide deaths overall declined by 3 percent in 2020, that is not true for all groups. There was an increase among Hispanic Americans, Black Americans and Native Americans.
The report shows that drops in suicide deaths among white men and women were the main forces behind the declines in both 2019 and 2020. Rates for white Americans declined by 5 percent — the largest of any group.
The report found that Hispanics in the United States reported having suicidal thoughts at a rate four times that of non-Hispanic whites: Hispanics were at 22.2 percent and non-Hispanic whites at 5.3 percent. Hispanics have a higher rate of depression than any other racial or ethnic group — that’s 40.3 percent for Latinos, 27.7 percent for Blacks and 25.3 percent for whites.
Novoa said she has seen an increase in people within her community coming into her studio to seek mental health help. “I can say that nine out of 10 people fill out that form that states they’re depressed, that they’ve gained weight, that their mental health has declined or that they've lost a loved one,” she said.
For Novoa, the issue of mental health hits close to home. Last year, she lost her father to COVID-19. After he died, she struggled with depression and attempted to take her own life. “It was Christmas Day. I just wanted to connect with him, like no one else mattered to me. I had always been Daddy’s girl. I never thought I’d lose him so young,” she said. “That day, I had a couple of ways that I wanted to try. I’m actually a really bad swimmer, I don’t know how to swim. So the first thing that came to mind was going to the beach because no one would notice me. I would just float away.”
Novoa had the good fortune that a stranger was there to help on that dark day. “A lifeguard saw me, and he approached me,” she recalled. “He was very kind and he just stayed with me. I shared with him what happened. He asked me if he could place his hand on me. I lost it and started crying. It’s interesting that he was a lifeguard, because he literally guarded my life at that moment.”
The CDC report showed that among Latinas, the suicide rate increased by 40 percent, from 1.5 to 2.1 per 100,000 people between 2019 and 2020. That's a troubling finding for 29-year-old Andrea Gallipoli, a Latina who also resides in South L.A. She has also struggled with suicidal thoughts. “Around five years ago, I remember not leaving my room for like three weeks and I didn’t understand what was happening, 'cause I had never seen someone, like a therapist. I was thinking I just don’t want to wake up and live this again. To me it very much felt like my life was over,” Gallipoli told Yahoo News.
Health experts have noticed that many Latinx people don’t seek mental health help. Just 5 percent of U.S. psychologists are Latinx, despite the fact that Latinos make up more than 18 percent of the population. Access to care can be very expensive, even more than physical health costs, according to Good Therapy. Many therapists don’t participate in insurance networks because of the low reimbursement rates. So an hourlong therapy session can range from $65 to $250 nationally, and tends to be on the higher end in high-cost-of-living areas like L.A. “I’m paying out of pocket, and it’s really expensive,” said Novoa. “There are times where I’m not seeing my therapist on a regular basis. I know it’s an investment in my health, but then I’m like, I have to eat.”
“There’s also the language barrier, because out of the mental health providers, how many speak a language that you feel comfortable speaking? Not many mental health providers speak Spanish. Having that acculturation, that similarity and familiarity with someone,” said Norma Mendoza, a regular at Babes of Wellness.
That’s why it was important to Novoa that she provide women the opportunity to build their strength while also healing from their past traumas. “Pairing strength training with the world of spirituality is very different, it’s unheard of,” she said. “My thought behind it was, ‘Why not have both?’ Where women can feel strong, where you’re not afraid of lifting heavy weights, that you feel empowered as a woman, but that you feel safe within yourself to do anything.”
She added that the conversation surrounding mental health is essential. “It’s a place where women are encouraged to seek help, to seek therapy, to hang out with friends, to share amongst each other,” she said about her business. “We hold space for each other.”