I have learned to be open about my mental illness to help bring awareness to the Indian community

I have learned to be open about my mental illness to help bring awareness to the Indian community

As told to Nicole Audrey Spector

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

My parents immigrated to the US from India in 1991 and I was born four years later. We lived in an area where there are a lot of South Asian families, so I grew up rooted in my Indian culture. Many of us have celebrated the same holidays and visited the same places of worship.

Unfortunately, we also shared the same stigmas about mental illness. I remember being a kid and hearing aunts in my community gossip about people in mental hospitals.

So when I first started hearing voices around the age of 14, I was scared of being found out and labeled “crazy.” The voices were telling me to hurt myself, to kill myself. They told me I wasn’t important and that no one would miss me if I left.

I remember the first time I heard them, sitting on the back porch. I looked around trying to see who was there. But there was no one else around.

Terrified, I ran to a nearby park and hid in the bushes, where I had what I later realized was a full-blown panic attack.

Once the panic attack subsided, I shrugged it off, went home, and tried to put it all behind me. But the rumors kept coming back. I’d take long showers to sob without being seen or heard. I also kept a journal often, noting the nasty things the voices said to me.

I was determined to keep my suffering a secret, but soon after the horrific rumors started, my mother found the diary hidden under my mattress. Later that day, my parents called me down to the same back porch where I’d first heard the voices. My first fear was that they wouldn’t take me seriously. My next, biggest fear was that they would send me to one of the mental hospitals that is so often talked about in our community.

To this day, I find it hard to fathom how utterly fortunate I am that my parents, both pharmacists, were so incredibly understanding. They sat me down and explained that struggling with mental health was common and nothing to be ashamed of. My father even looked into the statistics on how many antidepressants are prescribed in the US

My parents immediately made an appointment with our primary care physician, who started me on antidepressants and referred me to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with depression, anxiety and auditory hallucinations. Then, I started seeing a therapist.

While they were tremendously supportive and understanding, my parents were fearful of how others would treat me if my diagnoses were discovered. They urged me not to tell anyone.

I know I was told to keep my diagnoses a secret to protect myself, but feeling that I had to live in secret to 15 — on top of all the other negative narratives I’d heard about mental illness from our community — led to self-stigmatization. I had a hard time accepting that I had a problem and not fully committing to my care.

The only way I was going to get on my antidepressants was for my mom to sit me down and force me. She would take me to therapy and wait in the waiting room until my appointment was over to make sure I went through with the session.

However, I have found ways to rebel against my mental health struggles. I told the therapist what I thought he wanted to hear. The therapist was a lovely person, but he was also an old white man. Looking back, I wonder, “What could she know about being a 15-year-old Indian girl in America?”

Throughout high school, I pretended that nothing was wrong. All my friendships were superficial and I lied constantly so no one would find out I was sick. I had intense anxiety about people finding out I had anxiety.

During high school and college, I attempted suicide three times. I have to be very clear here: never during any of those attempts did I really want to die. I just wanted to escape the wrath of the voices, all of which were telling me to take the pills, use the knife on myself, or run into traffic.

In college, after my school administration threatened to expel me because a fellow student reported that I was a danger to myself and others after I had a panic attack in front of her, something snapped inside of me. I realized that I needed to start talking openly about my mental health issues. If I didn’t tell my true story, others would tell a false one.

I connected with student mental health advocates and we founded a student chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on campus. I started talking about my challenges and serving in groups focused on mental health.

I started taking my mental health seriously. I took my meds as prescribed and really committed to therapy. I no longer played the part of a “normal” young woman. It was me, finally, or partly me.

When I started sharing my diagnoses openly, I separated myself from my Indian community. I dyed my hair and joined a frat house and surrounded myself with classic American culture and tried to fit in. So even though I wasn’t pretending to be “normal” anymore, I was kind of pretending to be someone else.

Over time, I realized how much my Indian community needed to be a part of these mental health advocacy conversations and that I needed to be the one to spark them.

We recently had our annual conference at NAMI where I wore Indian or Indian inspired clothing. Every day, other Indians came to me to tell me how much it meant to them to see Indian prints, colors and culture in the mental health advocacy space.

I am inspired by the rise of conversations in my community — and society at large — about mental health awareness. But our work has only just begun. We need to empower people to ask for help when they need it, but at the same time we need to make sure that help is easily and widely accessible when they do.

And ultimately, we must recognize that unless we have a system in place that meets people’s basic physical, safety, and psychological needs, providing health and hope will always be an uphill battle.

What about my mental health challenges? I still have them, but I no longer live in shame. I’ve learned to see my mental health as just another component of my overall health that I need to take care of. Some people are naturally very healthy; others have to do a lot of work to be healthy. I fall somewhere on that spectrum. It doesn’t make me special in a good or bad way. It just is. And that’s perfectly OK.

Do you have real women, real stories you want to share? let us know.

Our Real Women, Real Stories are the authentic experiences of real-life women. The views, opinions, and experiences shared in these stories are not endorsed by HealthyWomen and do not necessarily reflect HealthyWomen’s official policy or position.

From articles on your site
  • How to help a friend with mental illness ›
  • Demi Lovato wants to change the face of mental illness ›
  • When stigma kills ›
Related articles Around the web