In response to elevated rates of trauma and suicide among older gay men in Puerto Rico, the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA), Thrive NYC, and Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders (SAGE) are partnering up for a joint public relations campaign aimed at informing and connecting queer Puerto Rican seniors — both in New York City and on the island — with appropriate mental health services.
The idea for the new advertising campaign originated last November when First Lady Chirlane McCray and DFTA staff visited Puerto Rico. The group met with the team at SAGE’s outpost on the island, where they learned that the fallout from the hurricane and other hardships led to increased depression and anxiety among older queer adults.
Those woes have since been exacerbated by both the coronavirus pandemic and a wave of deadly violence targeting transgender women. The plans for the campaign were underway before the latest crisis emerged, but now SAGE and DFTA realize that the effort is even more timely.
“The overall message is to basically inform people that you’re not alone and that there are resources out there for you,” DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez told Gay City News in a phone interview May 18. “During COVID and post-COVID, the message of combating social isolation and not being alone is true for us, for all 50-plus age populations.”
The campaign touts services that are available to individuals in both places who are in need of help, such as counseling and a hotline. Cortés-Vázquez hopes the publicity will inform those who are not aware of services available to them while also reducing stigma among Puerto Rican and Latinx communities.
Notably, stigma is a theme that appears to be on the mind of those involved in the campaign. Jose Collazo, who is the site manager at SAGE’s Bronx center and hails from Puerto Rico, emphasized that the issue is one that already permeates Puerto Rican society.
“I see that with LGBTQ participants who come here,” Collazo told Gay City News. “They say, ‘oh no, I’m not crazy,’ or they see it as a weakness, so therefore they’d rather not talk about it.”
Collazo pointed to one example of a SAGE client who suffered a panic attack, but refused mental health referrals and brushed it off by saying he was just nervous.
SAGE conducted focus groups in Puerto Rico, where respondents indicated that they did not feel valued or loved. The helplessness and frustrations of queer Puerto Ricans, Collazo said, was on full display in the protests that targeted Governor Ricardo Rosselló after it was revealed that the since-ousted leader engaged in homophobic and sexist chat conversations.
“That was a boiling point,” Collazo said.
The ads, produced by creative firm Bandujo, are intended to be inclusive and encompass the broader queer community beyond just gay men. Some ads feature transgender men and women, while others include lesbians and queer couples, Cortés-Vázquez said.
The ads are running in Spanish in English and are featured in both Puerto Rico and New York since the five boroughs boast a significant Puerto Rican population that often travels back and forth between the city and the island.
“Recent natural disasters and COVID-19 have devastated our community and Puerto Rico — leaving many of us to deal with the loss of jobs, homes, and loved ones,” one of the English-language advertisements states. “If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, YOU’RE NOT ALONE. Talking about it is the first step in feeling better… There is no shame in asking for help!” The ad then provides individuals with steps that can be taken to help them cope, as well as contact information for SAGE.
In Puerto Rico, the ads will appear on Facebook and on billboards in major traffic corridors in the San Juan and Mayaguez sections of the island, as well as on radio stations including WKAG-AM, WIAC-AM 740, WZNT-FM/La Z 93, Notiuno, WYEL-AM, and WIOB-FM. In New York, the ads will be on Facebook and in community newspapers including Queens Latino, El Especialito, El Diario, El Correo, and Gay City News.
The ads officially launched on May 18 and will continue through the month of June, though no official end date has been determined. Cortés-Vázquez expressed optimism that a similar campaign could potentially be carried out for other demographics in the future.
“I want to say this is the first of its kind collaboration between Puerto Rico and New York,” she said. “The campaign is designed to be replicated for other communities. That would be depending on the data, but absolutely.”