July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Join the celebration and spread the word. Mental health recovery is a possibility for people of diverse backgrounds. To learn more about the Month and get ideas of how to celebrate it visit: www.nami.org/minoritymentalhealthmonth. Jessica Gimeno has partnered with NAMI to help us celebrate the month and target teens and 20-somethings. We are happy to share her story.
My name is Jessica Lynn Gimeno and I am from Des Plaines, Ill. I come from a large Filipino family where I’m blessed with an endless parade of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. A typical gathering for Easter, someone’s birthday or “just-because” means that at least thirty of us are present.
While I had a happy childhood, it was not without its hardships that came from racist experiences and an occasional “darkness” I could not put into words. When I was 5, I had a kindergarten teacher who asked the minority students to perform menial tasks like fetching her slippers. As the only student who would not comply, that woman hated me. In academics, my parents instilled in me a Trojan work ethic. My mom told me I had to work twice as hard as my friends to be taken seriously because of the color of my skin.
As a child, I faced dark moments when I questioned the meaning of everything in life. They were like flashes of grey in an otherwise cotton candy childhood. As I got older, moments of emptiness stretched into hours and in my teen years, I would feel sad for weeks at a time. And then I’d feel great for months until I inevitably felt bad again. I worked incredibly hard when I felt fine to compensate for times when I was too depressed to concentrate.
When I was 18, a friend with bipolar disorder died by suicide. This prompted me to research the illness and I realized I had it too. I saw a doctor and got a second opinion, which all confirmed that I did indeed have bipolar disorder. Getting a diagnosis finally brought freedom from years of sleepless nights and crying spells!
For 10 years, I have been committed to medication and therapy. This, prayer and support from family and friends are responsible for my success. Despite fighting bipolar disorder and polycystic ovarian syndrome, I graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with two majors. As a student, I co-founded a depression support network and spoke to hundreds of students about getting help. I also found 30 students psychiatric help and assisted them in finishing school. Sometimes I meet people who have a low opinion of people with mental illnesses, but their prejudice just motivates me to be a better advocate.
In 2008, when I was 24 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis. I was given a 50-50 shot of living. Since I already beat depression, I knew I could fight this beast too. Today, I wake up in pain every morning because I have three physical illnesses. But every day I put on my “Rocky” boxing gloves and pray for strength.
I work for a wonderful nonprofit, The Balanced Mind Foundation, which connects families whose children have mood disorders with mental health resources. I host Flipswitch, a weekly podcast & blog that helps teens & 20-somethings understand depression and bipolar disorder. Last year, in honor of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month I did a series of interviews with people of different cultures called the “Minorities & Mental Health Series.” In recognition of my work, this year I won second prize in the National Council’s 2012 Awards of Excellence.
If you’re a minority facing mental health stigma, here’s what I’ve learned: At the intersection of racism and stigma, there lies a funny thing called hope.