My Mother Never Talked About Mental Illness — Until I Was Diagnosed With Depression

When I was a junior in high school, I had a mental breakdown at my after-school job. After witnessing my erratic behavior on the sales floor, my manager called my mother and convinced her to bring me to my local emergency room for psychiatric evaluation. Hours later, I was admitted to a juvenile psychiatric ward.

When I was first starting to experience symptoms of what I later found out was depression at 17 years old, my mother didn't see it at all. To her, I was simply a sleep-deprived teenager who was overexerting herself. I just needed to slow down a bit, eat well, exercise more, and then my worries about the future — one of the primary causes of my depression and anxiety — would dissipate. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her in the wee hours of the night, I was experiencing suicidal ideation. So you can imagine her shock and confusion when she was called to come pick me up because I’d had a breakdown during my after-school job. Everything my manager explained to her over the phone ran contrary to the daughter she knew.

It didn’t just go against what she knew about me: it went against what she knew about mental illness, period. There were no conversations in our household about the importance of looking after one’s mental health, simply because it was a foreign concept to us all. Prior to my diagnosis of clinical depression, anxiety, and psychosis when I was a high school junior, no one in my immediate family — including close cousins, my aunt, and grandma, who had all moved from Jamaica to the U.S. the moment they could — saw a doctor for mental health issues, even if it was clear they should. (Not to mention, it was expensive to visit one.)

Courtesy of Shammara Lawrence

Growing up, I found this to be quite common among other immigrant families I’d come to know in my neighborhood. People were keen on being resilient and self-reliant, no matter what hurdles were thrown their way. In many ways, those are admirable qualities — that mindset helps immigrants like the close women in my life overcome struggles they face as non-native residents in the U.S. On the other hand, that line of thinking can also make someone feel ashamed, guilty, or “weak” for having depressive episodes in their life when they need to be vulnerable and find support from loved ones.

Every year, 17 percent of white adults use mental health services compared to nine percent of African-Americans, seven percent of Hispanics, and five percent of Asian people, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While there isn’t much research available about mental health in the black immigrant community specifically, a 2007 report by American Journal of Public Health revealed significant disparities between American-born black people’s relationship to the mental health care system compared to that of black immigrants. While there were no overall differences between how often each group used mental health services, there were significant differences between their satisfaction with those treatments, thanks to language barriers and an absence of cultural sensitivity. Taking all of those findings into consideration, you can see why so many immigrants may be wary of mental health care.

When my mother was instructed to take me to the hospital, she was initially hesitant. As she later told me, psychiatric wards conjured up visions for her of people being tied down on beds against their will — a stereotype unhelpfully perpetuated by films and TV that has little to do with what an actual psychiatric facility looks like.

For the longest time, her viewpoint shaped my own understanding of mental health, which is why it took me so long to get treated.

My mom was also skeptical of mental health care providers and why people went to them in the first place. She viewed psychiatrists, particularly, as highly manipulative people who labeled others in order to put them on drugs that would only making them worse. In her opinion, in order to get over your unwanted feelings, all you had to do was cheer yourself up with positive self-talk. You don’t need to see a stranger to divulge your private thoughts to feel better, nor drugs in your system, she’d insinuate.

For the longest time, her viewpoint shaped my own understanding of mental health, which is why it took me so long to get treated. “Once there’s life, there’s hope,” she’d always say to me as a young girl, attempting to cheer me up if something didn’t go my way or I had exhibited unprompted sadness. The issue was that no amount of willpower could fix my mental illness — until my diagnosis.

But since my first hospital stay, her attitude toward mental health has radically changed. She’s now incredibly supportive about the fact that I currently need to be on medication to regulate my brain chemistry, and that weekly therapy is necessary. She’s also willingly learned the proper terminology for the symptoms I deal with such as panic attacks and crying spells, and will sometimes share coping tips she’s learned after seeing how it helped someone well-known, or a character on a TV show. Even when some of the advice has proven unhelpful — like, closing your eyes and counting to 10 whenever you’re really anxious, as she suggested recently — it’s endearing nonetheless.

If my mother’s shift in mentality showcases anything, it's that parents can, and do, change. After all, it took me a while to truly come to terms with my own mental health — while it was happening to me. It's only natural that my mom needed some time, too, to understand what I was going through. And then, she did what mothers do best — she wholly embraced who I am as a person, mental illness and all.

Bustle’s ‘Family Thread’ series looks at the many ways our family relationships and our mental health are connected — and how that shapes us.

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.