I was 29 years old when I first saw a therapist. At the time, I was in rehab for alcohol addiction and my wonderful therapist (who happened to be a Latina herself) helped me to recognize that I had anxiety. Not only that, but I was using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Basically, I was drinking to alleviate my anxiety. Facing up to all of that wasn’t easy but what I learned most of all is that talking about your issues is important.
When I was growing up, my family never really talked about our problems. In fact, we mostly still don’t.
My parents were very supportive during my early recovery from alcoholism, helping to push me into rehab and financially helping when I left. However, we still don’t acknowledge or talk about my alcoholism — or my subsequent discovery that I suffer from an anxiety disorder. I’ve never been able to fully explain to them why it is that I drank the way I drank nor the things that I have learned since. To them, they’re just happy that I am okay now.
But am I?
Mental health is still a really difficult topic in the Latinx community. My parents aren’t the only people that have difficulty talking about it. The statistics are pretty grim: Only 20 percent of Latinos with a mental disorder talk about it with their doctor and, even worse, only 10 percent pursue treatment, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s report. Many of us (myself included) would prefer to keep things bottled up rather than risk being called “loco”, or crazy.
“Mental health issues have a stigma in the Latino community,” said psychiatrist Diana Lorenzo, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. “Many Latinos would prefer to ignore these conditions over talking about them openly.”
Not surprisingly, Latinxs aren’t any different when it comes to the prevalence of mental health conditions when our numbers are compared to the rest of the population.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we often suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (what I have), major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism (me, too). Even worse, Latina high school girls have high rates of suicide attempts, according to NAMI. This is all likely due to the stigma as well as having less access to quality treatment.
Not only are we afraid of being labeled “loco,” but many of us grew up in households where our mami and papi often said, “la ropa sucia se lava en casa.” The stigma of appearing like a perfect family to the outside world was emphasized, and nobody wanted to have a crazy family member.
Unfortunately, it’s attitudes such as this that lead to silence in our communities.
They led to my own silence, in fact.
When I was in high school, I suffered from depression and anxiety, but at the time, I didn’t know that these were the roots of my pain.
All I knew was that I felt an enormous amount of pressure to be the perfect student and the perfect daughter. Any sign of failure felt like the worst thing in the world and I couldn’t quiet my mind from freaking out over every assignment.
Even though I did very well in school, and even got into a top private university, I look back at those years now and wonder why I didn’t say anything to anyone. At the time, I dealt with my undiagnosed anxiety and depression by cutting myself. Although I no longer have the physical scars from that time of my life, the emotional scars remain. And, at the height of my depression and anxiety, I attempted to commit suicide.
To this day, my parents do not know. I’ve still never been able to talk to them about just how badly depressed I was, about how much anxiety I experienced at that time in my life, and about how it affected me so badly that I tried to take my own life one day shortly before turning 16 years old.
It was a dark time in my life and I am grateful that I got out of it, but the truth is that I am never truly “out of it.”
The depression I felt as a teen eventually faded, but my anxiety remained quietly affecting every aspect of my life in my early adulthood. All throughout my 20s, I continued to succeed in life — and my undiagnosed anxiety continued to grow, along with the amounts I was drinking every week.
Eventually, I sought help, but only because I had to because I had hit rock bottom.
Now, three years after entering rehab and being diagnosed with anxiety (which led to my alcoholism), I am doing much better but I wish that it didn’t have to get to the point that it did before I sought help. Whenever a high-profile suicide appears in the news (like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, a hero of mine and of many immigrants, this past summer), my heart hurts. I wish that they had found the support that would have helped them seek the help they needed before it was too late.
For some Latinxs, getting help is difficult. Not only is there a language barrier for those Latinxs in the U.S. whose primary language is Spanish, but today’s political climate makes seeking help more difficult. Earlier this year, it was reported that suicide rates have doubled in Puerto Rico during the six months after Hurricane Maria tragically struck the island last year.
These tragedies have taught me that it is crucial that we educate our community about what it is that they can do when they suffer from mental illness.
For me, continued therapy has been the best way to deal with my ongoing anxiety. Not only do I love my personal therapist, but I also make an effort to read the stories of others who suffer from mental illness. I also spend time talking about my anxiety to others. Although it’s still difficult to talk about it with my parents, I talk about it with my partner, with my friends, with my brother. Anxiety is and will remain a big part of who I am but it is through talking about it that I can truly heal. And, hopefully, inspire other Latinxs to do the same.