Nicole Audrey Spector

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

My parents moved from India to the United States in 1991, and four years later I was born here. We lived in an area filled with South Asian families so I became immersed in Indian culture: many celebrated holidays together and worshiped at similar places of worship.

Unhappily, we shared similar stigmas about mental illness – as a child I recall hearing aunties in my community gossip about people admitted to psychiatric hospitals.

At 14 years old, when I began hearing voices for the first time, I was terrified of being found out and labeled “crazy.” These voices told me it would be okay if I hurt myself or killed myself and said nobody would miss me anyway if I died.

I remember the first time I heard them, sitting on my back porch. At first, I looked around to see who else might be there but no one was.

Packed with fear, I ran to a nearby park and hid in its bushes before experiencing what later turned out to be a full-fledged panic attack.

Once the panic attack subsided, I tried to put it all behind me by cleaning myself off, returning home and going about my daily business – but the voices kept coming back. To cope, I would take long showers in which to sob unnoticed or heard, and keep a journal in which to record their ugly words.

My initial intent was to keep my suffering private, but soon after hearing horrible voices for the first time, my mom found my journal hidden under my mattress and called my parents down to where it all began–on our back porch where it all had started–in hopes they’d take me seriously and send me away to one of the infamous mental institutions often mentioned by our community.

Today I still find it hard to comprehend just how blessed I was that both my parents, both pharmacists, were so understanding. They sat me down and explained that struggling with mental health is common and shouldn’t be held against anyone. My dad even provided statistics regarding antidepressant drug prescribing rates across America.

My parents immediately scheduled an appointment with our primary care provider, who began administering antidepressants and referred me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed depression, anxiety and auditory hallucinations before suggesting I see a therapist for therapy sessions.

Even though my parents were extremely understanding and supportive, they were worried about how others might treat me if my diagnoses became known to anyone outside our household. Therefore they advised me not to disclose it.

At 15 years old, they told me I should keep my diagnoses a secret for my own protection; but the reality of living under secrecy only made matters worse; on top of the negative stories about mental illness from our community, this further stigmatized myself; I struggled to accept that there was any issue at hand and didn’t fully commit to taking care of myself.

My mother was the only one who could force me to take antidepressants; she’d take me to therapy sessions and wait in the waiting room until my appointment had finished before leaving me behind in case something went amiss during treatment.

Still, I found ways to push back against my mental health struggles and tell the therapist what I thought they wanted to hear. Although he was an amazing individual and truly wonderful to talk with, he was also an old white guy; looking back now I find myself asking what could he possibly know about being 15-year-old Indian girl living in America?

Through high school, I attempted to keep up a false facade that everything was okay. All my friendships were superficial, and I constantly lied so no one would find out I was sick – an anxiety-inducing concern I experienced with every lie.

Through high school and college, I attempted suicide three times. While each time was different from the others, none involved an actual desire to die – just an escape from voices telling me to take pills, use knives on myself or run out into traffic.

After being threatened with expulsion at college due to reports by fellow students who claimed I posed a danger to myself and others after experiencing a panic attack in front of one, something within me shifted. I realized it was time for me to openly discuss my mental health challenges; otherwise others would make up their own false narrative about me.

My university hosted an NAMI chapter, and we formed one on campus. Once established, I started sharing my struggles openly and participating in panels focused on mental health.

After I stopped performing as “normal”, or at least partially so, it became easier for me to take care of my mental health. I started taking medication as prescribed and engaging in therapy sessions regularly. At last I felt like myself again!

When I began openly sharing about my diagnoses, I took steps to distance myself from my Indian community and conform more with classic American culture – not so much pretending to be normal but trying hard to fit in. Although no longer trying to impersonate “normal”, in effect I was pretending to be someone else.

Over time, I came to understand just how vital it was that my Indian community be included in conversations about mental health advocacy — and that I needed to be the one initiating such conversations.

Recently at NAMI’s annual conference, I wore Indian or Indian-inspired clothing. Every day other Indians there came up to me and said how much it meant for them to see Indian prints, colors, and culture represented within mental health advocacy spaces.

I am heartened by the increased conversations in my community — and society overall — surrounding mental health awareness. But our work is only just beginning. To enable individuals to ask for help when needed while making sure it can easily and widely available when required.

And we must remember that without a system to meet basic physical, safety, and psychological needs of people, providing health and hope will always be an uphill struggle.

Mental health challenges still present themselves to me, but no longer living in shame is no longer acceptable. Instead, I’ve learned how to view it as one component of overall wellbeing that requires me to care for. While some are naturally more healthy than others are; others require work. My mental health struggles fall somewhere along that spectrum; it doesn’t make me special in any way or form; they just exist and that’s perfectly fine with me.

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