The End of July Is Only The Beginning Of Mental Health Awareness

by Guest Contributor Jen, originally published at Disgrasian

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Across the board among minority groups in the US, stigmas surrounding mental health and treatment are much greater than they are for whites. So, while July is almost over, I hope this is only the beginning of the Asian American community and other minority communities championing a shame-free discussion about our mental health.

To kick off this month, my friend, Nigerian American poet and mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi, who started The Siwe Project to raise awareness of mental health issues in the African diaspora, declared July 2 “No Shame Day.” No Shame Day was designed to encourage people to share their stories and struggles with mental illness openly via social media. I’ve talked about my depression in the past–though upon reflection, not nearly enough given how much I care about destigmatizing mental illness–so I, of course, had to participate. (Plus, I want to be more like Bassey when I grow up. You would too if you knew her.)

It occurred to me, though, as I was participating in No Shame Day, how much shame still colors my view and my experience of my own depression, much as I’ve tried to rid myself of it. Even after 15 years of treatment. Even after 15 years of being honest and open about it with my family, my friends, NPR listeners even, and, most importantly, myself. I’m a depressive? I live with depression? I suffer from depression? I struggle with depression? Sometimes the hardest part was simply finding the right shorthand with which to describe it when I brought it up, which was not infrequently.

And yet, for all the time I’ve spent trying to own it, I still catch myself trying to disown it, too. I only ever do this with one person–myself. But, man, do I try. When I feel better, I like to pretend that depressed person never existed. Ding dong, the witch is dead. I think I’ve eulogized her at least a dozen times. When I start to feel worse, I immediately go for the quick fix. Do I need more sleep? Do I need more exercise? Should I drink less coffee? More coffee? Do I need to start yoga again? Should I eat more kale? Should I eat more cake? All perfectly valid questions, but a defensive smoke screen I put up nevertheless in order to not ask the question I really need to be asking myself: am I depressed (again)?

Denial is a helluva drug. And it’s a helluva drug when it’s the first tool you were ever given to deal with mental illness. Simply put: culturally, we just weren’t programmed to deal with this shit. Even though I witnessed it in various family members, I didn’t even know growing up that depression had its own name. Instead it was called “not trying hard enough,” “not working hard enough,” “not achieving enough,” “being lazy,” “lacking decorum,” “lacking pride,” “losing self-control,” “not caring enough about what other people think,” “embarrassing your family,” “selfish,” “rude,” “failure.” All of the language I heard to describe what I would only later understand to be mental illness made it clear you could always “work” your way out of it–alone, naturally, because you didn’t want to bother other people with your problems–and if you couldn’t, well, you had no one but yourself to blame.

Oh, there was some direct acknowledgement of it. But then it was called “crazy.” And crazy was permanent. Crazy was too far gone. Crazy was something terrible that had happened along the way (we don’t know what); crazy was let’s not ask too many questions; let’s speak in hushed voices about it, cluck our tongues, turn away our gazes, and then continue going about our business. It was always zero to crazy. You either were or you weren’t. There was nothing in-between. If you were crazy, you were beyond help. If you weren’t, you didn’t need it. End of story.

I think people who aren’t familiar with what it’s like to be Asian can be quick to assume that someone raised with such notions about mental illness was raised by the most unkind, uncaring, unfeeling wolves. I’ve met plenty of mental health care professionals who’ve jumped to that assessment. In my case, it wasn’t true. But I did inherit cultural values from my parents that they inherited from their parents that they inherited and so on and so forth that did not teach me how to live with depression.

And I’m not alone. In study after study, researchers have revealed the devastating effects of cultural stigmas–and other barriers to treatment–on the mental health of our community. Some un-fun facts:

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Asian Americans ages 15-34 [link]
  • Asian American teen girls have the highest rates of depression across race and gender [link]
  • Asian American women ages 15-24 have the highest rates of suicide among all races in that age group. [link]
  • Asian American women over the age of 65 have the highest rates of suicide among all races in that age group [link]
  • Asian Americans are almost two times less likely to seek mental health treatment than the general population [link]

When I spent time on No Shame Day reflecting on how hard it’s been to come to terms with my own depression, even after all of this time and treatment, even with the support I’ve received from family, friends, quality mental health care practitioners, readers of this blog, and perfect strangers–to that person who saw me wailing uncontrollably in the car on Santa Monica Blvd. years ago and asked if I needed help, I still think of your kindness–I was reminded that the struggle against not only the cultural stigma over mental illness but the internalized personal one is deep and ongoing. I’ve only come this far in that struggle with the help of many others. It’s my hope that no one else reading this who’s been nodding along to what I’m saying will have to go it alone either.

With the help of Intern Jasmine and those of you we’ve reached out to personally and via social media, I’ve put together a mental health resources directory. It’s by no means a complete guide to the resources available, but it’s a starting point. Many of the sites we’ve listed have their own directories which may also be useful to you or a loved one. Some of the resources in our directory are specifically tailored to Asian Americans, particularly with regard to language services, a few are more general. I tried to put together a list of links where you could get a fairly direct line to treatment. Use it, or pass it along. If you know of other organizations that offer similar care that aren’t listed, please make a note in the comments. If one resource doesn’t work for you or your loved one, don’t give up.

Wishing you all peace, love, and self-forgiveness.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent article

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joyce-Tesar/100000205757228 Joyce Tesar

    I would like to see more counselors who speak American Sign Language.

  • Nikita

    I was recently diaganosed with clinical depression and after years of wondering what is wrong with me – it is actually a relief to know what it is. I am an African American woman so the fact that I went to get help for ME is great because there is usually a stigma attached to being diagnosed with a problem. It is interesting to watch people adjust to your truth about your mental health and the looks of concern and questions are… on going. Am I generally ok – YEP. There are sometimes though when I feel like ish and the world seems against me and worse I am against myself. Am I working on it – there is really nothing to work on. I try to mitigate the triggers that I can identify, go to my therapist, and take care of myself and when I feel it coming on. I also try to accept that often there are no triggers – I am depressed. I place myself around people so that I am not alone – I get to help.. I try to acknowledge the depression – NOT ignore it or pretend it away because in some small way that helps me.
    I hope more people get themselve diagnosed and get help with their mental problems. I am not ashamed of having depression at all. It is a relief to give this overwhelming sadness, this drowning in sorrow, this self esteem taker – life diminisher a name. By being to accept it I do what I can and get help. I hope others who suffer will make the effort to do this loving thing for themselves – get diagnosed and get help – too.

  • penelope

    Thank you for this post. I don’t even know how to describe how I am feeling right now but you took the words out of my mouth.

  • miga

    Thank you for this. I wish I’d known about it earlier, but all the same- thanks! My mental illness is primarily inherited through my mom and her mom (who’s Japanese). She did a lot for me to try to erase the stigma of mental illness for me, but there’s still the underlying “bootstrap” thread when it comes to her-and that ends up sending a mixed message. She’ll go off her meds sometimes because she thinks she doesn’t need them anymore (not to mention they’re expensive); or talk about how she just needs to work harder when I can tell she’s really not doing well.