Orlando Fuentes is available for anybody who needs support. It’s how he wants to be known: an ally for those struggling with mental illness.
Fuentes leads the student-run Latinx Mental Health Task Force for Al Exito, a statewide organization whose mission is the empowerment of Iowa Latinx population through education, college attainment and success. The Mental Health Task Force works with the Des Moines Public Schools system to create goals and initiatives to better serve mental illnesses within the Latinx student population.
“We have come up with recommendations to the improve the mental health of Latino students in our schools,” said Fuentes, who is a junior at North High School. “We have an increased reliance on psychology, and we have guidance counselors who understand trauma-informed care. We worked with the school board on policies. We’re trying to make change happen.”
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Fuentes joined the task force on a whim in November 2018, thinking it would be a great place to get involved and help those who need it. He’s also had personal experience — both his mother and father deal with mental illness — which added to his intrigue. But as he’s become more involved, he started to fully grasp the scope of mental illness in the Latinx community.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 33% of Latinx adults with mental illness receive treatment each year compared to the United States average of 43%. That’s often because of the overwhelming stigma attached to mental illness in the Latinx community.
“Everybody needs help, and you’re not going crazy. It’s something that needs to be taken care of. We’re not going to look at you any differently, we’re just going care for you more. That’s my message.”
“It’s hard for [Latinx] students because of our culture. We’re very strong willed, and we’re taught to be that way,” Fuentes said. “For many of the students’ parents, mental illness didn’t exist in high school. Nobody talked about it. So when students are going through hard times, it’s tough for them to voice what’s going on because their parents don’t know and don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”
Fuentes said one of the most rewarding parts of his leadership with the Mental Health Task Force is the platform it gives him to speak about mental illness. Last summer, Fuentes and the rest of his team traveled to Minneapolis to speak about mental wellness. Right now, he and the task force are working with Des Moines Public Schools to allow more leniency for students who miss school because of mental illness.
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Beyond those efforts, Fuentes just wants to be a comforting presence for his peers. A few of his close friends and family members deal with anxiety and depression. Through his work with the Mental Health Task Force, he has learned how to be a calming force for them when they don’t have anywhere else to turn.
“When I have friends that are struggling, I always ensure them that it’s OK to get help,” Fuentes said. “Everybody needs help, and you’re not going crazy. It’s something that needs to be taken care of. We’re not going to look at you any differently, we’re just going care for you more. That’s my message.”
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Make It OK is community campaign to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness. Start by learning what a mental illness really is. Then, find out what to say and not to say when someone opens up to you. You can also help others by sharing your own story to help people know they aren’t alone. Learn more about how you can get involved at MakeItOK.org/Iowa