My parents immigrated from India in 1991, and four years later, I was born. We lived in an area with many South Asian families so that my culture became embedded within my surroundings: we celebrated holidays together and visited places of worship regularly.
Unfortunately, we also shared similar stigmas about mental illness. When I was growing up in my community I would hear aunties gossiping about people admitted to psychiatric hospitals.
So when I began hearing voices when I was 14 years old, I was terrified of being exposed and diagnosed as “crazy.” These voices told me it would be best if I hurt or killed myself; they told me no one would miss me after my death.
I remember when I first heard them – sitting on my back porch. At first, I looked around trying to see who else might have heard, but nobody else seemed nearby.
Terrified, I ran to a nearby park and sought shelter in its bushes – where, unbeknownst to me at first, I experienced what would later turn into an intense panic attack.
Once my panic attack subsided, I returned home and attempted to put it all behind me – but the voices kept returning. To combat them I would take long showers alone so that I could sob in private while also journaling regularly about what they were telling me.
At first, I tried my hardest to hide my suffering; however, shortly after hearing these frightening voices for the first time, my mom discovered my journal under my mattress and immediately called my parents down to meet me on my back porch where it all started. At first, my biggest fear was that they wouldn’t take me seriously, while later that same day another fear emerged: that they might send me away to one of the many psychiatric hospitals so popular in our community.
Today I realize how lucky I was that both my parents were pharmacists. They showed incredible understanding by sitting me down and explaining that struggling with mental health is common and should not be shamed; my dad even provided statistics regarding how many antidepressant medication are prescribed across America.
My parents immediately scheduled an appointment with our primary care provider, who began me on antidepressants and referred me to a psychiatrist. That psychiatrist diagnosed depression, anxiety and auditory hallucinations before suggesting I see a therapist.
While my parents were always immensely supportive and understanding, they feared how others might treat me if my diagnoses became known to the outside world. Therefore they advised that I keep silent about it all.
Though I knew they wanted me to keep my diagnoses private for my own good, being told at 15 that I must live my life in silence caused additional feelings of shame for me personally and led to difficulty accepting that there was something amiss with my mental health and failing to commit fully to its care.
My mother would force me to take my antidepressants, then wait in the waiting room until my appointment had completed to ensure I completed the session.
Still, I found ways to take control of my mental health struggles and rebel against them. I told the therapist what I thought he wanted to hear – even though this lovely, old white guy might not understand much about being an Indian girl in America? Looking back, this question remains: “What could they possibly know?”
As I navigated high school, I hid any symptoms of anxiety with superficial friendships and constant deception to ensure no one knew that I was sick. Intense anxiety kept building as people became aware that I was struggling.
At three separate points during my high school and college career, I attempted suicide three times. None of the attempts was intended as an act of suicide; rather they were attempts to escape from voices telling me to take pills, cut myself or run out into traffic.
At my college, when the administration threatened to expel me for having had a panic attack in front of another student and reporting me as potentially dangerous, something clicked inside. It dawned upon me that it was necessary for me to openly share my mental health struggles if not others would present false narratives instead.
As student mental health advocates, I collaborated to establish a student chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). After joining, I shared my experiences publicly while participating in panels devoted to mental wellness.
After years of neglecting my mental health, I finally took it seriously and took all prescribed medication as instructed and engaged fully with therapy sessions. No longer was I playing the part of an ordinary young woman – at last – or partly so.
As soon as I began publicly sharing about my diagnoses, I made attempts to distance myself from my Indian community and move toward classic American culture and try hard to fit in. Although no longer pretending to be “normal”, in essence I was still pretending to be someone else.
As time went on, I realized how essential it was that Indian community be involved in conversations around mental health advocacy — and that I must initiate these dialogues myself.
At our recent annual conference at NAMI, I wore Indian or Indian-inspired attire every day – which drew compliments from other Indian attendees as much for its aesthetic value than its meaning in mental health advocacy space. Many came up to me and told me how important it was for them.
I am heartened by the rise in conversations around mental health awareness within my community and society as a whole, yet our work is only just starting. Our role now is to enable individuals to seek help when needed while also making sure it is easily and widely accessible when required.
And ultimately, we must realize that without an effective system that meets people’s physical, safety and psychological needs, providing health and hope will always be an uphill struggle.
As for my mental health challenges, they still exist but no longer define me in an embarrassing fashion. Instead, I have learned how to see mental health as just another component of overall health that requires my care – just like physical health does for most people; some can naturally thrive while others require additional work; I fall somewhere along this spectrum myself, which doesn’t define or characterize me in any particular way and is perfectly normal.
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