One Voice, Less Stigma: My Latina Identity Holding Hands with Depression #MMHAM
Written by: Kristen Luft
This July, we are focusing our content on ‘Minority Identities and Mental Health’, a blog series honoring #MMHAM that discusses the mental health risks, issues, and resources specifically affecting minority populations and identities.
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 be cured of.
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, for hours on end, 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 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.
That couldn’t be farther 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. And 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 over 16% of Latinx/Hispanic people who have a mental illness. That’s over 10 million people in the United States. 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 had.
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 have 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, have a private life and not draw attention to myself, and to uphold more traditional cultural norms. I have been reminded insistently 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 perfectionism tendencies, some internalized shame about my own identity, 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.
I think that’s why it’s even more important for 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 shame and hushed voices accompany mental health, and the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is prevalent, the first step to improving access to care is to break down the stigma and make it known that it’s okay talk about mental health. Silence within Latinx communities about mental health can lead to lack of information about mental health, because it may be viewed as ‘taboo.’ This stigma surrounding mental health 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 part of the chipping away of 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’s not 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.
Mental health resources for Latinx populations: