Why It Took So Long For My Asian American Parents To Accept My Decision To Take Antidepressants

Courtesy of Erika Lee

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

I can’t even remember a time where fear and anxiety didn’t rule my life. It defined my whole personality. I couldn’t even take an exam or give a presentation without having an emotional breakdown beforehand. Despite this, I didn’t know my anxiety meant that I had a mental illness — like many others, I mistakenly thought mental illness was only “valid” if you were suicidal. But I still couldn't shake my intuition that I needed help. And when I tried to tell my Chinese immigrant parents that I might need to go to therapy or take medication, expecting their support and understanding, they didn't accept it.

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Numbers show that there is a stigma against talking about mental health in Asian households. Asian Americans are three times less likely than white Americans to seek psychiatric assistance, according to the 2013 National Latino and Asian American Study. And, according to Mental Health America, there isn't that much research that looks at what kind of mental health support Asian/Pacific Americans need.

Since our family was close, I assumed that conversations about depression and anxiety would come as easy as talking about a tough day at work or school. But every time I tried to bring my anxiety up, my parents would close the conversation immediately. They’d say I’d just grow out of it or that it was a normal part of life.

I didn’t “just grow out of it.” When I was younger, it was hard to tell whether I was just an excitable teenager or somebody suffering from an actual anxiety disorder. But my anxiety attacks kept getting worse, depending on my levels of stress. Once when I was 19, I was so nervous about going to work that I had to go to the restroom four times in an hour. I ended up fainting on my bathroom floor in cold sweat because of an anxiety attack.

Courtesy of Erika Lee

My anxiety also leaked over to my personal relationships. I would pick fights with the people closest to me because of my overthinking. If someone canceled plans with me, I would assume that they just didn’t want to be my friend anymore. If someone took too long to respond to a text, I would think that they were purposely ignoring me even if they were just busy. I was so sensitive that everything hurt me more than it should. I had irrational fears of people constantly leaving me, would get angry at the smallest things, and had trouble sleeping at night.

It’s not that my family didn’t care — of course they did. I would overhear conversations between my parents, overwrought about what to do about my unstable moods. They brainstormed ideas like tutoring to increase my confidence in school, enrolling me in more activities that would help me find my passion, or making plans to take family trips — anything except seeing a doctor. In my parents’ view, their daughter having a mental health issue would reflect poorly on the family and how they raised their child.

It got to the point where I would find myself crying for no reason whenever I got up in the morning. That was when I said, “Wow, this isn’t normal,” and decided to seek professional help, even if my parents wouldn’t support it.

I found a male psychiatrist who took my insurance and could speak both Mandarin and English. My mom went to the office with me and waited in the lobby. Even though I was 22 years old, and my mom wasn’t 100% supportive of my taking medication, I still felt a sense of comfort having her there with me. My psychiatrist asked me a bunch of standard “yes or no” questions and prescribed me with fluoextine, an SSRI also known as Prozac. I wasn’t sure if it would make me better. But I didn’t think it could get any worse, either.

I didn’t stop having bad days, of course, but antidepressants make me feel like I have a sense of control over what I feel.

My mom and dad started fighting over this decision. "Why do you think there's something wrong with our daughter? Why did you allow her to take drugs?" my dad would say. "She’s so young, she doesn't need it." While my mom wasn’t keen on the idea of taking medication, she was slightly more open-minded than my dad. She seemed disappointed but didn’t yell at me or stop me from taking it.

I started off taking 10 mg a day. Everyone's experience with medication is different, but for me, the first month on medication was straight hell. It didn’t seem possible, but my anxiety got even worse during that time. I would cry just because of the way someone looked at me. I would wake up to intense and vivid nightmares in the middle of the night. I lost my appetite, and everything I tasted or drank tasted like garbage. I wondered, desperately, when I would start feeling better.

After a month, my body began to get used to the medicine. I started seeing my doctor every month to stay on track with my mental health. My parents were not only relieved but pleasantly surprised at how much I improved in only a couple of weeks. Deep inside, I felt that they might have regretted not letting me take medication earlier.

Courtesy of Erika Lee

Fast forward almost a year, and I feel the most emotionally stable I’ve ever been. My friends and family have commented on a drastic difference in the way I behave. Antidepressants have saved me. I stopped waking up in the morning dreading my life and crying for no reason. I didn’t stop having bad days, of course, but antidepressants make me feel like I have a sense of control over what I feel.

If my parents had been willing to accept my mental illness, I might have felt a lot more stable years ago. While I don’t harbor resentment against them for the delay, I do think about the children of immigrant parents who are experiencing mental health issues. I wish for their parents to be more open-minded.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, millennials are more willing to talk about mental health than their parents or grandparents. Growing up around dialogues about anxiety, depression, and suicide is slowly changing the stigma for APA millennials. Being able to talk about these things in conversation makes a big difference in what many have refused to acknowledge all along — mental health is an essential part of our overall well-being.

There isn’t a single day that I don’t think about how thankful I am to have sought help. The spaces that used to be filled with my frustration and fear now have room for other parts of my personality. I am no longer defined by being anxious. Though I still have days where I struggle, it doesn’t feel nearly as daunting knowing I have a support system — including my parents — behind me.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.