In 2018, I mustered up the courage to tell my mom that I had been secretly seeing a mental health practitioner since 2016. I was seeing my most recent psychologist following suicidal ideation from a multitude of factors — financial instability, lack of full-time prospects in journalism, general and social anxiety, and PTSD after a postgraduate study abroad experience gone wrong, which I still haven’t fully recovered from.
She called me selfish and dismissed my pain and need for professional help. It was the second time that I had told her that I sought therapy to deal with anxiety and depression. The first time I told her was in 2013, months after I stopped going due to Hurricane Sandy. I was naive to believe that her response would be different for me at age 27 than at 21.
If you asked my family, specifically my mother, what they thought about me, they’d tell you that I had it easier than most people my age who lived in the working-class neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. I’d obtained a master’s degree at 24, I was in a healthy relationship with someone with similar ambitions, I had recently begun freelancing for a major publication, and I had rarely displayed angst or frustration outside of expressing my feelings about the industry.
To my mom, I had surpassed expectations — especially from the perspective of someone who came from a first-generation household from the Dominican Republic and emigrated to New York in the 1980s for the opportunity of a better life. I completed my studies, interned for TIME, and never fell into the wrong crowd or had a “Domingo Siete” (getting pregnant out of wedlock). Never in a million years would she think that going out to see friends and my boyfriend or going shopping or playing Pokemon Go was actually a cover for seeing a psychologist.
If you asked my family, specifically my mother, what they thought about me, they’d tell you that I had it easier than most people my age who lived in the working-class neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City.
And yet in 2018, when I revealed to my mom that I’d been seeing one following an increasingly heated conversation about my career in the living room, it felt like I was stabbing her in the back. I single-handedly ruined her illusion of the daughter who finally has her act together after years of self-esteem issues and pedestrian boy trouble.
“You have a master’s degree in your 20s while others in your age group are raising children and facing real challenges. Your ‘anxiety’ comes from the mistakes you’ve made in your life. I wonder whether it was the right decision to let you attend St. John’s,” she said in Spanish, telling me to eat some ice cream to settle the anxiety. I attended St. John’s University in Queens for undergrad as opposed to a City University of New York school in Manhattan due to its reputation of having a fantastic journalism department.
“I always thought you went to a different borough for school because you were trying to forget your ex,” she added.
My ex cheated on me shortly after I was accepted to journalism school in 2014, and my mom would often mention him in an attempt to add salt to the wound in arguments. I sat on the couch in silence, forcing myself to hold back the tears that were rushing to come out while using all the energy I had not to stir a bigger commotion.
“But you’re comparing different situations,” I angrily replied. “I don’t have children to care for, that’s true — but that doesn’t diminish what I’m going through.”
Hearing what I’d been really going through following graduate school was too much for her to take. The suicidal thoughts that had been floating in my brain, the sneaking around, the admission that I’m likely still alive because my current partner assisted me in getting help — all of that led her to wonder whether she had made the correct parenting decisions. I went to my room, which I coincidentally shared with her in a cramped three-bedroom apartment, hoping that none of my other three family members heard our conversation.
Growing up in a Latinx household, we rarely talked about mental health. One of my earliest childhood memories involves my grandfather taking his nightly dosage of blood pressure pills and antidepressants. Until my 20s, I never truly grasped why he had to take so many colorful red and teal pills every single day at the same time.
My family did their best to shield me from the cruelty of the world and what was unfolding inside the safe space they had created for me. My grandfather attempted to take his life twice when I was 11. No one told me what had happened besides that he was “sick.” Following these incidents, his mental health was never spoken about — even after he passed away. No one’s mental health at home was spoken about until I began to seek care for the first time in 2012.
Like many who grew up in strict immigrant households, if I wanted to do anything remotely social or interesting, I knew I had to keep it a secret.
I spent the summer before senior year of college visiting a psychologist at my local clinic, where I was diagnosed with anxiety. Before the diagnosis, I’d believed that therapy was for crazy people, but at the insistence of my medical doctor, I decided to try it. I was stressed after being falsely accused of infidelity and being shamed for it, but I eventually came to realize that the constant negative and stressful thoughts interfered with my daily life, and getting help for it was not and is not insane.
So I decided to see the therapist. However, the fear of getting caught by someone my mother knew from the neighborhood was palpable. Going to sessions made me feel dirty in a way, like I was sneaking off to have an affair with a married man once a week and I had to be careful not to leave any evidence of my presence. My mom is extroverted and resourceful from her years of working in retail. I, on the other hand, am quiet and introverted and have a much more difficult time standing up for myself.
Like many who grew up in strict immigrant households, if I wanted to do anything remotely social or interesting, I knew I had to keep it a secret. I was expected to be obedient, chaste, and at school, even when my mom had a hunch that I wasn’t. The first time I told her I had seen a psychologist in 2013, she was surprised. I never intended on telling her, but the truth came out like word vomit.
“Why do you have to see a psychologist?” she said, her face lowered in disappointment.
“Because I’m fucked up,” I said back. “I’ve been fucked up for a long time.” I didn’t elaborate any further for fear of shame.
Dominican families are notorious for bragging to others about how great you are because you hold an academic degree and have a good job, while simultaneously telling you that you need to be better than your counterpart in every way. Seeing a mental health professional can mean that you’ve failed your family, or that your parents failed to raise you sensibly. It can feel like you’re a fraud.
Anxiety, depression and all other mental illnesses in my community aren’t always considered real. Instead, they’re often perceived as a manifestation of nerves that can be resolved by praying it away. Sometimes, they can be “treated” by visiting a specialist, usually a spiritual adviser who provides a potion of sorts to keep the infamous “mal de ojo” (negative energy) at bay.
“In Dominican families, seeing a mental health professional can mean that you’ve failed your family, or that your parents failed to raise you sensibly.”
Thirty-three percent of Hispanic or Latinx adults with mental illnesses receive treatment each year compared to the U.S. average of 43%, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Several barriers in my community prevent people from seeing one, including language differences, lack of health insurance or affordable options, the fear of being deported and the most prevalent factor — stigma.
It’s taken me years, and even group therapy, to undo that stigma of looking “crazy” that I’ve been conditioned to believe most of my life. At 29, I’m much more open about my mental health now than I was a decade ago. I’m no longer afraid to get on a call with a psychologist or share my story about anxiety and depression with acquaintances and friends in the BIPOC community who are supportive and have expressed similar feelings.
While I still have a long way to go in my treatment, I’m content with no longer having to sneak around my family’s back every week. My mom occasionally asks whether I still see my therapist and whether I find it helpful. She continues to harbor reservations about my anxiety and depression but no longer shames me for seeking help. Our relationship is far from perfect, but it’s a vast improvement from the instances where I was kicked down to my lowest points.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my 20s, it’s that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of undoing mental health stigma in BIPOC communities. Before we can begin to even have the courage to reveal our mental illness to our loved ones, we need to come to terms with it ourselves first.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that it’s OK to seek professional help where we can and it’s OK to go on medication that is meant to help our lives, not harm us. We need to try our hardest to set an example of what a healthy and fulfilling life could look like if our communities got the help we desperately need. The more we prioritize mental health and care for it as we would a broken leg or the common cold, the easier it’ll become in the long run to end the stigma of being seen as “loco” for getting help.
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