By Kristen Luft
When I was in college, I was diagnosed with depression. It had been apparent that something was wrong halfway through high school when I carried a sadness, an exhaustion and a heaviness I couldn’t explain. I spent the rest of college trying to find the right treatment that would “fix me,” as if this was something I could get a grip of and cure.
There were days when I couldn’t bear to open my eyes in the morning. Days spent staring at the wall under heaps of blankets. Days I didn’t change out of my pajamas or go to class. Days I cried so much that it hurt to blink. Although I had started therapy and was taking medication, I felt mental pain that would not waver no matter what I did.
I spent my 22nd birthday in tears, locked in my room, wondering why God was allowing me to feel this much pain. I was wondering why a God would exist that would make me want to end my life. I felt so alone, even with supportive parents, amazing friends and a loving partner. I have felt this way so often in the past eight years, in waves that ebb and flow in different seasons of my life.
The thing about clinical depression is, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you have or where you come from. It makes its way into your life for no reason, boasting its darkness and reminding you of lies that you are worthless, you are a burden, you are alone. Lies that couldn’t be further from the truth.
For me, my treatment-resistant depression has become a big part of my identity, not because I want pity from others, but because I want to make others struggling with mental illness feel less alone. That’s why I live my life through an identity of a mental health advocate. It’s why I love my job at NAMI Wake County.
As someone who considers herself in a more stable part of her recovery, I want others to find the same hope I’ve found. As a Latina, I am part of the 17% of Latinx/Hispanic people who have a mental illness. When applied to current Latinx/Hispanic population estimates, that’s over 10 million people in the U.S. I consider myself lucky though. Because though many Latinx people experience barriers to treatment, such as less access to health insurance, poor communication and lack of culturally competent resources and mental health providers, I have had access to treatment that many have not.
Another large barrier to care in Latinx populations is cultural perceptions and norms. There is a perception in Latinx/Hispanic communities, especially among older people, that discussing problems with mental health can create embarrassment and shame for the family, resulting in fewer people seeking treatment. This shame is common in other cultures as well, where emotions are not validated in ways they should be.
Since my mother used to be a doctor, I’ve had the privilege to have parents that understand the science behind mental health conditions and have given the support I need through different modes of treatment. I am lucky. But this hasn’t made me exempt to the mental health struggles I’ve experienced that come along with my Latina identity.
I am a first-generation American, meaning both my parents are immigrants, and being the child of immigrants has absolutely shaped how I carry myself and see my own place in this world. In my experience, I have been held to extremely high standards, pushed to work hard and told to uphold more traditional cultural norms. I have been reminded consistently throughout my life of the sacrifices my parents have made for me, and that is something I have found is common with other first-generation Americans.
It’s a heavy burden to carry. I’ve also had to carry some my parent’s fears, being told to not speak Spanish in public and keep my head down to avoid experiences of judgment or discrimination. Not only has this played a role in my own identity formation, but also my mental health. I have perfectionist tendencies, some internalized shame, and am constantly aware of what others may think of me. And it makes sense.
Research shows that in the Latinx/Hispanic population, older adults and youth are more susceptible to mental distress relating to immigration and acculturation. This is just one reason we need culturally competent care to be available for minority communities. Mental health providers should understand how someone’s identity plays into their mental health. But in Latinx culture — where hushed voices accompany conversations about mental health — the first step to improving access to care is to make it known that it’s okay to speak up.
Silence within Latinx communities can lead to a lack of information about mental health. This stigma plagues many minority communities, which is why Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is so important. Our stories matter and they need to be heard. Through my voice, I see myself as helping chip away the stigma surrounding mental health.
Vulnerability has been one of the most essential parts of my recovery, allowing me to free myself of the shame and loneliness that comes with mental illness. Of course, on bad days I still feel both of these things, but opening up about my depression has made me feel more in control and empowered. It’s allowed me to connect with others who struggle with mental illness. And hopefully, it encourages others, Latinx or not, to do the same.
In this way, we break down barriers that affect minority populations, shouting “it’s okay” to have a mental illness. It doesn’t have to be taboo. It’s affecting millions of us, and we need to talk about it. So let’s share our stories and make room for others at the table. I’ll pull up a chair for you.
Kristen Luft is a marketing professional based in North Carolina. She is a 2018 graduate from UNC Chapel Hill and is currently the Engagement Specialist at NAMI Wake County. Kristen is a passionate mental health advocate, empowering herself and others through writing. You can find her @kristenl17_ on Instagram and Twitter.
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