I was just 16 years old when I was first diagnosed with depression. After months of feeling numb, sleeping and otherwise staying in bed for most hours of the day, and barely eating, I went to a community health center by myself.
I wasn't exactly surprised by the diagnosis. But I think, deep down, I was hoping it was something else — because I knew I wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I couldn’t afford — literally or figuratively — to seek treatment.
First of all, I didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t pay for the therapist to whom I was referred, nor could I afford any antidepressants that person might have prescribed. Plus, living in a small suburb without a car meant very limited access to free clinics or support groups. (And back then, there weren’t quite as many good online support groups as there are now.)
I also couldn’t afford the shame that came with having a mental illness. Depression wasn’t something that was understood in my small hometown of Milpitas, CA (or in the Asian-American community in general). I was familiar with the concept at the time, but only in the sense that depression was a “first-world problem,” that it wasn’t a "real issue," and that it was just a "pathetic excuse."
All of these misconceptions, coupled with a lack of access to proper care and the crushing guilt of possibly burdening my parents who, as refugees, have suffered enough, meant that I stayed silent — until I was 22 and staring suicide right in the face.
Sadly, my story isn’t uncommon: Although overall, Asian-Americans
seem to be affected by depression at a lower rate than other groups, we are also less likely to seek treatment. This trend affects young Asian-American women in particular; we have the second-highest suicide rate
among all ethnic groups. This may be due to a variety of reasons, including cultural stigma and a dearth of therapists and other health professionals who are sensitive to these issues.
For so many of us, and perhaps especially for Asian-Americans, acknowledging a mental illness can be hard enough. But then there’s also the recovery process, which everyone
who has depression knows is difficult.
I’m lucky enough to have people in my life now who support me and have pushed me to prioritize my mental health, but it hasn’t been an easy road. As far as I’ve experienced, there’s no cinematic breakthrough moment in which you wake up and realize how great your life actually is and suddenly beat depression. More often than not, it’s a very unglamourous
battle that you make a conscious decision to fight every day. It’s a process of starting, stalling, stopping, and starting all over again.
Recovery means feeling weak, then feeling strong, and sometimes feeling both things at the same time. It’s as much a learning process as it is a recuperation process. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel 100% recovered, but I wake up most days feeling content, present, and grateful for my life, and that’s enough for me for now.
Since I grew up hearing so many things about depression that just weren’t true, I’m taking the chance to tell my own story and make up for a lifetime of silence and shame. Because after all, if I want us all to do better for mentally ill people, I might as well as put my money where my mouth is and start speaking up.
Ahead are five things I've learned so far.
Refinery29 is teaming up with Black Girls Smile Inc. in honor of Minority Mental Health Month to encourage women everywhere to lead their most mentally healthy lives. Because there is no health without mental health. Prioritize yours.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.