How to Discuss Your Mental Health With Family Members Who Don’t Get It

How to Discuss Your Mental Health With Family Members Who Don’t Get It

El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latinx communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).

Let me know if any of these sound familiar: Boys don’t cry. We don’t air family business. You have to be strong. Turn to God.

These refrains (all of which I’ve heard at least once, some in the last month) are just some of the responses that people dealing with mental health challenges in Latino communities have come to know well. Going to therapy or struggling with mental illness can be viewed as a sign of weakness or that you’re “crazy.” Combine this with unequal access to mental health services and quality health insurance, and it’s no wonder that Latinos, who are just as likely to suffer from a mental illness as whites, are half as likely to seek treatment.

When Adriana Alejandre, a therapist in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, started her practice in 2017, she tried to find accessible information for her predominantly Latino patients — the kind of resources that would apply directly to their lives. “I was super frustrated, because I couldn’t find any resources for my clients that were relevant, that were modern, that weren’t so much clinical jargon,” she said.

So last year, she started a podcast to get the word out and help Latino patients see therapists as “more relatable.” Immediately she received dozens of responses asking for more information and, crucially, Spanish-language content. Alejandre started recording the episodes in Spanish as well as English. Now, Latinx Therapy is a full-fledged platform with a directory of therapists and free screening tests for depression, eating disorders and other common mental illnesses.

At speaking engagements, Alejandre said, people still tell her things like “I’m not crazy,” or “That stuff is not for us, for our family. Our problems, we solve it ourselves.” She explained that Latino communities tend to be collectivist, meaning that we value the group over the individual, sometimes to personal detriment. In other words, if family members are resistant to therapy or talking about mental health struggles, “breaking that is tough,” Alejandre said. “The downfall is that people suffer in silence.”

The mental health activist Dior Vargas, 31, was one of those people. “I didn’t talk about it with my family at all,” she said about her early struggles with anxiety and depression. “Everything really came to a head when I attempted to end my life when I was 18. That was an eye-opening experience for my family.”

“We were all thrust into this really traumatic experience,” she added. Her family “went from having no knowledge to having a lot of knowledge.”

One of the problems was that Vargas struggled with viewing her own experiences as valid. She grew up hearing about how many family members grew up poor in Ecuador, including her grandfather, who emigrated to the United States with only a third grade education.

“There’s so much trauma he went through that he didn’t deal with, that he didn’t talk about,” she said. Hearing about her grandfather’s struggles made her think: “Who am I to talk about feeling depressed? Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

But intergenerational trauma is a crucial reason for Latinos to go to therapy, said Alejandre. Not doing so “allows the cycle to continue — whether it’s trauma, whether it’s depression, anxiety, domestic violence,” she said.

She suggests explaining therapy to family members by comparing it to other common treatments: “When we have a cough, we take cough syrup, jarabe, to feel better. When our minds are sick, we go to therapy.” She also said it’s important to clarify that therapy is not only for moments of crisis. “Therapy is a space where you can learn to build skills, whether that’s communication, whether that’s understanding yourself, creating boundaries.”

For me, setting boundaries meant not telling anyone in my family that I was going to therapy for more than a year. It helped to have it be my own thing, to not have to answer to anyone or be questioned about what went on there. Vargas’s approach was to share “very general things so that they felt like they were part of it, but not to the extent that they knew too much, because that time between me and my therapist was my time.”

Alejandre said: “It is tough when family sees you as ungrateful for healthy behaviors like boundary setting. But the system will not change if someone does not initiate the change.”

And early conversations about therapy are like planting seeds in our communities, she added. Those seeds will grow into an understanding “whenever they’re ready.”

Here are more stories to read this week.

📲 Check out our new Crossing the Border newsletter for (sometimes harrowing) stories about life on the U.S.-Mexico border.

📺 Netflix is going to adapt “Cien Años de Soledad” into a series.

🎙 The former owner of La Marina, Fernando Mateo, went on “The Breakfast Club” to talk about the saga there.

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