It took suicidal thoughts to change a century’s worth of preconceived notions about mental illness.
I experienced anxiety attacks for years before I knew what they actually were. During one of my most severe attacks, I remember lying face down on the floor in a pool of my own saliva, blood dripping from my lip that had split from passing out from hyperventilation.
I remember hearing, “STOP BEING DRAMATIC!” right before hitting the floor and thinking, “They’ll never understand what this feels like.”
Telling my Caribbean parents that I couldn’t control my anxiety attacks fell on closed ears. They thought that my attacks — which were usually triggered by arguments with them — were rage outbursts that I was mimicking from what I saw on TV to get their attention.
When I said that I thought my ataque de nervios (Spanish for “nerve attacks” and what Latinos say to describe the symptoms I experienced) meant something was wrong with my brain, they angrily disagreed.
Instead, they argued that I wasn’t “loca,” and that “outbursts like that are for white people.”
It wasn’t until, at the age of 24, where I was debilitated for over a week with anxiety and suicidal thoughts that they considered that I might actually need help.
During that week, I was vocal about my suicidal thoughts because I didn’t know what else to do. And neither did my parents.
Mental health stigma exists and persists among many societies and cultures. This includes Latino communities where talking about mental health isn’t the norm (not to mention the disparities in access to, and quality of, treatment).
According to a
Surgeon General’s report, the National Comorbidity Study found Latinos utilized fewer mental health services. In fact, only 10 percent of the folks surveyed who had an anxiety disorder used mental health specialists for care.
Although I was brought up in a loving, accepting household, mental health wasn’t a topic that was ever brought up in conversation.
I was conditioned to believe that therapy was reserved for “major mental breakdowns,” and that extreme sadness and stress could be overcome by toughening up or going to church. And when it was spoken about, it was usually to comment on someone’s unfortunate battle with psychosis or to gossip about someone for seeking counseling.
But after my episode, something began to change in my family. My mother helped me contact mental health providers for consultations. I was eventually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and clinical depression, and was set up with a treatment plan that included therapy.
While it was a relief to finally receive the treatment I needed, deep down I was terrified at the thought that I was still going to be labeled by my family for seeing a psychologist.
I knew I had an entire life ahead of me and I wanted to get better, so I continued going to therapy.
I expected my family to treat me like I was “loca” or like I was an outsider in their perfectly “sane” home. Instead, I found their support of my need for treatment comforting during that very difficult time.
Yet, while they encouraged me to continue to seek treatment, it was still an uphill battle helping them understand the way mental illness affected me day to day and how they could help me cope. It was clear that I needed to find a way to help my family understand what it was that I was going through.
So after a few sessions with my psychologist, I found that I was able to explain my GAD to my parents by sharing statistics about the condition with them.
At my therapist’s suggestion, I also invited my mother to a session with me where she was able to ask questions about my symptoms, outbursts, and even how she could help me at home.
I never thought I’d be in the same room with my mother and my therapist, but it was a major step toward my recovery and my family’s understanding that I was battling a real disease.
I realized my family’s beliefs about mental illness were a result of intergenerational conditioning
While my mother and the rest of my family were making strides in understanding what I was going through, I also realized and learned to accept that their beliefs about mental illness weren’t their fault.
The beliefs were, like many Latino families, a result of intergenerational silence, conditioning, and ignorance about mental health issues and their treatment.
This realization changed the way I approached my family — especially when teaching them how to react to the many changes I was going through. I no longer lingered on the thought that they didn’t care or judged me for my anxiety, depression, and treatment because it was clear to me that they just didn’t know any better before.
I was lucky that I had a growing support system that was open to listening and learning instead of having to deal with people who were dismissive of my struggles.
Being honest with my family meant I was taking a stance against generations of misinformation about mental health
I knew it wasn’t up to me to decondition my family of their century’s worth of preconceived notions about mental illness. Yet I realized, in taking a stance against what I thought we knew about mental health by being honest with them about what I was going through and getting treated for it, that was exactly what I was doing.
Talking about your mental health with a family member is difficult, especially if you come from a culture where the issue of mental health is surrounded by stigma and misconceptions. But it can be done.
Don’t wait until you have no choice but to share your feelings with them. They may already know you’re going through something but just need clarity about what you’re feeling and how much it affects you.
Tips for talking to your family about your condition
- Choose to speak to the people you trust
- Plan what you want to say ahead of time
- Choose a time when you’re both available and someplace private
- Start by saying it’s not easy for you to talk about
- Use concrete examples of your triggers and mental responses so they know how you’re affected and why
- Be patient when they ask questions
Finally, don’t give up. Speaking to people you trust about how you’re feeling is the first step in helping them understand your mental health condition. And this can mean giving them clarity on how to help you on your journey of treatment.
Melanie Santos is the wellpreneur behind MelanieSantos.co, a personal development brand focused on mental, physical, and spiritual wellness for all. When she’s not dropping gems at a workshop, she’s working on ways to connect with her tribe worldwide. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter, and they’re probably planning their next trip. You can follow her here.