“If you get an emotional support dog, you’ll just be taking away from people who really need help,” said my dad to me over the phone because he couldn’t understand why his child was so successful but complaining about be depressed.
I remember hanging up and wondering if I was being dramatic and if I could actually use emotional support. This conversation reminded me of earlier conversations I had with my mother about being a high functioning depressed person.
“Aye mijita it could be worse,” she would say, inadvertently minimizing my struggles as I confessed to her that I was thinking about starting therapy. “We all get sad mijita, try not to be so sensitive,” she would say, leaving me to wonder if I was being dramatic or too much.
None of the other Brown or Black faces I saw around me had time or resources to access mental health resources. The cycle of poverty, the struggles to survive as low income people of color, had me and my loved ones prioritizing rent over the traumas we experienced while trying to pay rent.
A year and a half later, when I mentioned to my parents that I was struggling and leaning towards medication to assist with my symptoms, they both got quiet. When my parents think of depression, they envision stereotypes they’ve seen in the media – gaunt, introverted, “sad”-looking folks, often thin, white, and cisgender… all main characters from the 1999 movie Girl, Interrupted.
I am the polar opposite. Colombian and Mexican, delicious and chubby, genderqueer, high functioning…and also chronically depressed and anxious, with obsessive-compulsive disorder and immeasurable amounts of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Within many Latino households, mental illness and mental health flare ups are reduced to character traits as opposed to being viewed as symptoms. As Latina.com highlights, “among Hispanics with a mental disorder, fewer than one in 11 contact a mental health specialist, and fewer than one in five contact a general health care provider, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Office of Minority and National Affairs. Furthermore, less than 55 percent of Hispanic adults — and only 30 percent of adolescents — with a major depressive episode in receive treatment for depression.”
Since no one in my family or circle had ever gone to therapy or sought out support for mental health, it seemed like an unspoken rule that seeking out therapy is something that “white people do.” This outlook, along with a lack of culturally-competent therapists and few multilingual psychologists often leads to controversial coping mechanisms, ranging from avoidance and denial to alcoholism and drug use.
Because I didn’t have access to culturally competent therapy and medical spaces, I sought out my own spaces to find relief. Knowing that our resilience flows like water as Latinx people, I began to seek out culturally relevant methods of healing and coping to manage my mental health.
Through medicinal herbs and blessings from curanderos and shamans, I found that I was able to cope with flare ups. Herbal medicines by out, undocumented healers and wisdom from elders helped me remember my ancestors have used naturally occurring medicinal plants to cope, the kind that are often deemed criminal in Latinx hands.
However, I found that no matter how much Manzanilla tea I drank or how much cedar I burned, no matter how many culturally relevant sweat lodges I attended, I felt that perhaps I could still use some therapy, or medication. That’s when I realized that for me combining healing methods from my culture with western forms of medicine is my best option.
I feel that my relationship with my mental health is for me to define; as my symptoms do not define me nor are they characteristics of my identity, but are parts of me I’m learning to accept and live with, without shame. Stretching, lighting candles with the Virgin Mary on them, burning rosemary and sage, going to therapy sessions, accessing medication, praying, giving offerings to the ancestors – these are all ways I care for my mental health while combining the intersections of my beautifully complex existence.