Admitting you struggle with mental illness is difficult for anyone. It definitely is for me. It’s terrifying, paralyzing, and just plain awful. I’ve struggled with depression for many years; it’s been less than a couple years since I could say this out loud though. Not just because of my fear, but because of my family’s cultural background.
I was born and raised in California, but my parents moved here from India in their twenties, a few years after getting married. They’ve raised me and my older brother with strong values and morals and always tried their best to support us. Naturally though, we disagree on many things, usually having to do with their upbringing in India. It’s been the cause of many of our arguments. One of the many topics our family avoided was mental illness. I didn’t have much knowledge on the subject; honestly, I’m not even sure if I identified depression as a mental illness back then.
Freshmen year was when I began struggling more noticeably. One day on the way home from school, my mom asked me why I was acting so weird. I was just so tired of hiding everything and ended up blurting out that I thought I was depressed. Three years later, I still remember her reaction vividly. She screamed at me, saying I didn’t know what I was talking about. That so many people were struggling in the world, and I should never ever say something like that again.
I was pretty angry with her, but it did teach me to keep my mouth shut. I assumed that everyone else would react similarly and I was on my own. I didn’t stop to consider that my mom had acted that way due to her culture. I didn’t know that her brother struggled with schizophrenia while growing up. I didn’t know that in India they had mistakenly labeled his schizophrenia as depression, and that was still what my mom thought it was. I just didn’t know.
I showed no signs of what my mom had learned to call depression. I barely had any noticeable signs to her, other than moodiness and a desire to isolate myself from everyone and everything. But even though it wasn’t really my mom’s fault, it didn’t stop the stigma from affecting me. I labeled myself as an ungrateful, weak freak. Nothing awful in my life had happened, yet I was so miserable.
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt many months later, my parents could no longer deny that something was wrong with me. It took them about a year to come to terms with the fact that this could be a lifelong struggle for me. That year included much treatment and hours of grueling family therapy. They still struggle with the concept of mental illness at times; so do I. But I try my best to not be scared of the stigma anymore. People judge what they don’t know, and I’m OK with that. I’m OK with not being OK. I’m OK with the fact that I do need people.
This thing we call stigma is what holds so many of us back from getting help. And it comes from anywhere: culture, society, family. Actually, I think the hardest stigma to get past is the one that comes from within you. Even now, I have days, even weeks, where I judge myself so harshly for something I can’t control. But I come out of it eventually, and I always will.
The other day I was watching Wreck It Ralph, and one of the characters, Vanellope, seemed to apply to this concept of being different and stigmatized. She was a glitch in the computer programming, and everyone ostracized her for it. The part that really got to me was when one of the bullies says, “You’re a glitch, and that’s all you’ll ever be!” Sometimes, that’s how I feel. I feel like I’m just this depressed girl who can’t do anything meaningful, because how can I? I’m just some screw-up who can’t handle anything. But in the end, Vanellope is revealed to be much more than a glitch—she’s actually the princess of her world, as well as a champion. And her “glitching” makes her that much more powerful.
We’re obviously not in a Disney movie, and we don’t have picture-perfect happy endings in the sunset. Our roots, our cultures, and our surroundings can be a heavy weight upon us sometimes. But you can still be happy and loved. You can still fight—fight the stigma, and fight for yourself. As I write this, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of being judged, and I’m afraid of voicing what’s been such a private matter for me the past few years—but if one person identifies with this, then that’s OK. The more you know and the more you understand, the less you’ll be afraid.