Even before grade school, I began to show symptoms of what would later be described by doctors and professionals as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. While most four-year-olds would leave their toys and books in disarray, I couldn’t leave my house if the bathroom towels weren’t folded perfectly. If I didn’t tie my shoelaces the way I intended to, I had to restart the whole process; I would even resort to throwing a tantrum if I kept failing myself.
My family wondered what to do with me. My parents tried nearly every method imaginable to expunge me of these extreme sensitivities: reading books about how to raise “spirited children,” parenting therapy sessions, and, curiously, one of their friends even advised them to buy a sensory brush. While I eventually grew out of the habits that would occupy my mind and energy, I grew deeper into the need for perfectionism and control.
Attending one of the most competitive high schools in the US certainly did not help my mushrooming anxiety and depression. Instead of seeing my peers as my biggest competition, I was in constant competition with myself. I wanted to be the best writer, the best debater, and the best test-taker. And if I failed myself, I felt control slipping through my fingers—and control, of-course, was my only sense of comfort.
But I don’t want this article to be about my depression, OCD, or anxiety. As someone who’s not fully recovered even after a few years of getting medical help, I don’t feel fully comfortable talking about my experience.
I want to address the stigma that exists surrounding mental health issues in families like mine.
What I do want to discuss, however, is why I refuse to have a sincere conversation about my mental illness with even those closest to me, and I want to address the stigma that exists surrounding mental health issues in families like mine.
I often wonder what it would be like if I were more open about talking about my mental health issues. Would the stigma surrounding the subject disappear, or would opening up instead inspire me to feel more vulnerable?
I’m a second-generation Asian-American. However, I grew up in an ultra-Americanized household. I am so detached from my ethnic background that there have been instances where people tell me that I am the “whitest Asian person they’ve ever met,” or they ask me if I’m adopted. Any remnant of east Asian culture that did stick was drilled into me by my grandparents. From childhood onwards, I was told that my family is the most important part of my life, and if I were to bring shame on myself, it would impact my family as well.
While I am mostly comfortable talking to my parents about my mental illnesses, this is as far as my awareness of my struggles goes. To my grandparents, my seemingly happy demeanor and academic achievements made me the object of praise and attention. My grandparents and I are very close, but cultural norms become a barrier to open conversations about my struggles. There was, and still is, no way that I could sit down and talk about my experiences with mental illness. Because, to them, only the weak struggle. If you have a mental illness, they recommended that you just get over it.
I remember sitting at my grandparents’ dining room table over the summer. They were telling me how proud they were that I was getting good grades while also managing to lead a “healthy lifestyle.” But most of all, they were happy that I hadn’t “moped around all day like those depressed people.” If only they knew about my struggle with mental illness, or only if they were knew that I’m on antidepressants.
My grandmother recently visited Montreal, and she brought up the topic of psychiatric therapy. Back in California, my cousin was struggling with extreme stress and anxiety, and she had started seeing a psychiatrist.
“Why doesn’t she just talk to her mom about her problems?” my grandmother asked. “I mean, she doesn’t even know this person!”
And while I like to think that I’m not to blame for ignoring the voice inside my head that tells me to be more open about my mental health, I have come to realize that I too have internalized their sentiments, which I believe is commonplace among families like mine. As much as I tell myself that it’s wrong to view my mental illness as a weakness, every time I feel incredibly depressed or anxious, I fall into the trap of believing I am worthless. So worthless, in fact, that I make a conscious decision not to get help.
Psychologist Ben Tran describes this behavior as “hiding up,” and is especially common in understanding the stigma in addressing mental health in Asian-American communities. Before my mom went back to the States after helping me move in, we went to the student health services to make an appointment to see a therapist. It was what my doctor and therapist back home said to do, but I never showed up to that appointment. Being a first-year, I wanted to believe that my mental illness was something of the past; it was a defining feature of my high school career, but one that would not carry over into university.
Even after losing two friends to suicide within four years, one would think that I would finally try to seek a solution for my mental health issues once and for all. However, as much as I knew that I needed help, taking the initiative to do so seemed impossible, and I didn’t know why. Maybe it was pride, cultural stigma, or a mix of both. A month later, my depression creeped up again, and it soon became unbearable. So, the rational side of me decided to make another appointment to which I promised myself I would go.
…But McGill being McGill, the next available time was two months away. While a part of me wanted to just burst into tears and scream because I felt mentally tormented, the other half was relieved that I didn’t have to admit that I was struggling.
The ideas surrounding shame, pride, and honor are so ingrained into our culture that even the most Americanized families still hold this mentality.
Stigma surrounding mental health issues is not exclusive to Asian-American households, but it particularly plagues our community. The ideas surrounding shame, pride, and honor are so ingrained into our culture that even the most Americanized families still hold this mentality. According to the American Psychological Association, Asian-Americans were three times less likely to look for mental health services compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Those of Pacific Islander as well as South Asian descent are also reluctant to seek help. Additionally, those who do seek out help risk being seen as “weak” or “crazy” by their family members.
What some of my family members ignore or refuse to admit is the fact that mental illnesses are no stranger to the family. Tragically, a relative of mine committed suicide, and both my great-grandmother and grandmother have obsessive-compulsive tendencies similar to my own. Although no specific gene that causes mental illness has been identified, there are genetic links that show that these issues are hereditary. Through the generations, my family has also likely struggled with what I am experiencing.
I want to find a way to be able to open up without feeling guilt. But most of all, I want my family to see my mental illness as something that constitutes a legitimate part of me, present but not defining. Instead of perpetuating the toxic habit of hiding up, I want to finally find a way to speak out.