OITNB's Diane Guerrero Discusses Anxiety, Depression & Family

Photo: Courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.
There's a good chance that you recognize Diane Guerrero, either from her scene-stealing role as Maritza Ramos on Orange is the New Black or from her role as the titular character's best friend and confidante on Jane the Virgin.

You might also know her as the woman who bravely shared the story of her family's deportation, first in an op-ed for the L.A. Times and now in a powerful new memoir titled In the Country We Love. Determined to keep her family's story from being reduced to a soundbite, she has remained a vocal advocate of immigration reform, using her voice to speak up and make a change.

Guerrero, just 14 when both her parents were deported back to Colombia, also opened up about the devastating effects that the harrowing experiences had on her mental health. As she describes in the book, her feelings of anger and resentment soon spiraled into depression and self-harm.

In the middle of promoting both her book and OITNB's fourth season, Guerrero chatted with us via email to discuss the importance of mental health — particularly in communities of color.

Having your parents taken away must have been unimaginably terrifying for you. How did that fear affect your everyday life?

"I was very afraid as a child. Every moment with my family felt like it could be the last. This causes a lot of anxiety and pressure for a child. If I was playing in the back yard and came in for water and I didn’t see my mother, I could go into a panic in a matter of seconds."

Studies have shown the immense psychological impact that immigration raids have on affected individuals and their family members. How much of your depression do you think was related to being separated from your family?

"I went through an immense amount of trauma when my parents were taken away and it definitely contributed to my depression later on. I didn't realize it at first, but any issues of insecurity, anxiety, inadequacies, relationship issues, and self-hatred were due to what I went through with the separation of my family."

In your book, you open up about so many things that are still hard for us all to talk about. How important was it for you to discuss mental health in the context of what you and your family went through?

"Sure, it’s difficult to talk about such personal things, but I felt it necessary to share the part that mental health — and lack thereof — played in my life. In order to adequately express the necessity in our country for immigration reform and the effects that family separation has on families, I needed to recount my experience, down to the ugliest parts."

Health care and mental health should be a right and not a privilege.

You’ve also discussed feeling as though no matter what you went through, your parents were going through much worse. Did that affect how willing you were to get help?

"I often felt a lot of guilt, 'survivor’s guilt,' if you will. When my parents were taken away, my family unit died. Emotionally and mentally, my 14-year-old self could not process this kind of abrupt removal. Seeing my family's pain was so excruciating that whenever I thought about my feelings, I would be angry at myself.

"I thought that whatever I was feeling could not be anywhere near the pain they were feeling. I masked my feelings and marched on with a determination to succeed. It was only later, where I became emotionally and at times physically debilitated, that I decided to get help."
Photo: Courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.
A line from your book really struck me, where you mention having thought, "Emotional wellness is a first-world luxury." That point resonates with a lot of us especially with how difficult it still is for people of color to access proper mental health care. How did you overcome that hurdle to seek therapy?
"Mental health and mental illnesses are highly overlooked in this country, especially in underserved areas, where health care is lacking. Going to therapy helped me understand what I was feeling and essentially saved my life. It helped me develop coping skills, communication skills, and set me on a path where I could accept myself and what I wanted for my life.

"Sadly, this is rarely the experience for many of the people I grew up with. I realized later some of the amazing things that could have been accomplished by people whose mental illnesses went undiagnosed and uncared for.

"When I said, 'Mental health is a first world luxury,' I meant it to say just that. Poor education systems and lack of resources are major problems in communities of color. People who grow up in poorer areas lack the understanding of the importance that mental health plays in their lives and their very survival."

What would you say to people who have reservations about therapy and who might feel as though therapy is only for privileged people?

"I believe mental wellness is often the missing link between you and success. The sooner we realize how crucial it is to incorporate this very essential component to people’s lives, the sooner we can be a more productive society. I know I benefited greatly from this awareness and part of my mission is to make others aware through my own story and experience.

"I hope that we, as a country, can come to the conclusion that health care and mental health should be a right and not a privilege. But most importantly, that there is a correlation with the lack of adequate health care and mental-health services and the literal depression that exists in communities of color; both mental and socioeconomic."
In The Country We Love is available at bookstores nationwide. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is now available to stream on Netflix.
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.

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