Not in OUR Community: Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness
I grew up in a traditional Latino home. My father was the head of the household and my mother – and the subsequent wives my father had – followed his lead in everything from what he liked to eat, to how he liked things arranged, to well, everything.
This is just a glimpse into our culture and though it isn’t how I live my life now and it’s not what I personally believe for myself and my family, I try to understand the cultural norms and traditions and am usually able to tolerate certain practices, if only from afar.
But one thing I have struggled with is the lack of belief and support for mental health within not just my Latino community specifically, but within the community of color in general.
A few years ago the Institute of Health published a study which stated that “almost half of all Americans will develop some form of mental illness during their lifetime and that many of those diagnosed first experience symptoms during their adolescent years”. But sadly those numbers were predicted to be higher within the community of color because of the stigma associated with issues relating to mental health.
When most other people outside of the community of color will be open to having conversations and seeking help, our community will see it as a sign of weakness, look towards it with skepticism and distrust, or be too ashamed and embarrassed to talk to anyone, least alone a family member about any problems they may be having.
I won’t deny that even as I write this, I think about all the people I know who talk about visits to their therapist with the same casual tone as I would when talking about going to the gym and at first it was strange to me.
I won’t deny that I never take pills, and distrust anyone that would tell me that any medication would be necessary for me to think and function normally.
I won’t deny that I often wonder if our society is too over-medicated, too willing to blame mental health as a source of their problems and behavior, too willing to succumb to a diagnosis over taking responsibility for their actions.
I won’t deny any of those things because it is a result of my upbringing, of what I was taught and what I grew up listening to and witnessing.
But I have also learned a lot and seen enough to know that mental illness is not something we can just ignore, judge or make go away.
I know that there was a time when I was depressed. I remember it as being a dark void in the space of my life. I remember how it consumed me and everything I did and how I related – or didn’t relate – with others. But I didn’t seek help. I didn’t believe in it and I convinced myself that I needed to toughen up, be stronger, and just shake it off.
I was lucky. But not many people are and when your community, your peers aren’t there to support you, encourage you, inform you and guide you it becomes even harder to understand the problem: whether it be depression or any other number of mental health issues that affect our community. There is no denying that access and affordability are also debilitating factors in our efforts to retain the help that we may need, but I would say that we are our greatest barrier to health.
I have sought out to learn more about these issues for myself and for my family. It helps to understand why there was abuse and behavior that I witnessed while growing up. Education is helping me not only understand, but try to prevent repetition and hopefully even forgive. Information helps to heal wounds but also improve relationships.
I encourage my fellow Latinos and others in our community of color to join me in my effort to educate ourselves about mental health, and learn to identify the signs of illness, or at least be willing to seek the help.
There is no shame in asking for help, only shameful when made to feel worse for needing it.
***Get the conversation started. Watch the premiere of the Lifetime Original Movie "Of Two Minds" Saturday, March 10, at 8 pm et/pt. The film, starring Kristin Davis (“Sex and the City") and Emmy winner Tammy Blanchard (“Moneyball,” “Amish Grace”), takes viewers on an emotional journey as they are given an intimate look at a family’s struggle to cope with a loved one suffering from schizophrenia and the challenges that threaten to tear them apart.
Watch the trailer: