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Why Cultural Differences in BIPOC Communities Can Impact How We Discuss Our Mental Health

Picture this: You’re knee-deep in a global pandemic and on the brink of daily mental collapse. You were working as a freelance publicist and lost all of your clients, you are month-by-month falling thousands of dollars behind on rent and calling the unemployment office on an almost daily basis fighting against the millions of other people trying to get even one ring on an impossibly unreachable phone line. You are watching friendships implode and fade away, as you are backed into a corner of loneliness that feels like a sociopathic cosmic test of patience and a simultaneous awakening of who those “friends” really are. You are watching a sickeningly incompetent president sink the country further and further into an abyss while watching the systematic murder and violence manifest on social media and on television against the lives and rights of Black, trans and people of color unfold minute by minute, all the while you are dealing with black toxic mold in your apartment and a property management group who have left you in the dark to breathe in mold spores on your own causing unbearable respiratory symptoms. This eventually led you to take bi-weekly COVID-19 tests to appease your anxiety and paranoia that you have inevitably lost the battle and finally contracted COVID-19, joining a legion of thousands of others, despite doing everything the “right” way.

All of a sudden, you receive a message asking if you would be interested in leading discussions on mental health — on video – which means showing the face you’ve been intentionally hiding for months and using the voice that’s been silenced by solitude, while simultaneously being tasked with writing a follow-up article on the subject. (Insert imposter syndrome here.)

The topic in question for said article: “How to Break Down the Walls of Pride and Rigid Cultural Attitudes to Have Honest Mental Health Discussion with Your Family.”

Which I then had to ask myself…how do you break down the walls of pride and rigid cultural attitudes to have honest mental health discussion with your family?

As the dust settled from my months-long seemingly unending anxiety attack, and my head started to wrap around the topic that I suggested, I began to realize that I had never done the exact thing I had been charged with writing about. And this was for my very first published piece, no less.

I have always had a complicated relationship with my family. Counterintuitive to most Filipino-American families, my Filipino-American family had the exquisite luck of not subscribing to the traditional Filipino values of family first and togetherness above all else. In fact, I don’t really know much of anything about my family. I recall asking a cousin of mine who lives in Seattle, “Has our family always been like this? Have we always been this…separate from each other?”

She told me a story about my aunt who recently passed, saying that her husband would always try to unite the family back then, including my father and their three other brothers. After my uncle-in-law passed, she said we all went back to our separate ways. In some ways, I blame my own lack of initiative to find out more about my family. Why didn’t I ask them myself? I knew bits and pieces of my dad’s past, but in my teenage rebellion, I was more interested in sneaking out with my friends to punk shows and solemnly swearing that I was up to no good. My mother left me to move to Texas with her newly formed family when I was around the age of 8, in what would have become an unforgettable Christmas memory in which she came to drop off my present and ended with the cops showing up and me as a child having to choose who I would spend the rest of my youth with. The odds landed on my father and it would be 12 years until I saw her again at the age of 20 after my father passed away from esophageal cancer. Little did I know those events, among many, would create the trauma I deal with in my adulthood today. Feelings of abandonment, trust issues, my relationship with mortality, severe anxiety and depression, an extreme aversion to being controlled by any type of authority or being told what to do…the list goes on, with most of those issues being swept under the rug until I confronted them head on later in life.

With my last connection to my roots being my mother, we find ourselves currently at odds with each other with communication and closeness. Along with my half siblings, we concluded we don’t know much about her either, as she has never disclosed much about her past. She has mostly checked out emotionally, and has seemingly settled in the life she created with her husband (a less-than-ideal partner), which includes her own undiagnosed mental health issues and unwillingness to open up as a loving mother. So with all of that being said, how do I, of all people, give others advice about connecting with their family?

I realized I had to look outside of myself for answers. I reached out to friends, family and colleagues to learn about their stories and experiences on how they did or didn’t have those discussions themselves. As I honed in on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) stories, I had a few non-BIPOC friends share their stories as well, and had to acknowledge that the uncomfortableness and difficulty associated with mental health discussions amongst family were universal and crossed all cultural boundaries. But for the sake of my experience and to uplift the voices of my BIPOC peers, I found a uniting thread in how mental health is approached in families of color and the pervading issues we face as children of immigrants.

I spoke to a high school friend from Hawaii, and another friend from Texas whom I met through one of my half sisters. Both have vastly different experiences with mental health, but two distinct similarities in that seeking mental health services was somewhat normalized for them, but that same mental help was shunned by their parents and family for themselves. My Filipino-American high school friend mentioned that her mom supports her being in therapy 100 percent, but refuses to go to therapy herself to deal with some of the emotional issues that she hasn’t processed. My Mexican-American friend mentioned that for her Hispanic relatives, mental illness wasn’t looked at seriously or discussed outwardly because it was seen as ‘embarrassing’ to acknowledge, even though members of her family clearly were struggling with their own internal issues. It wasn’t until one of the other members of her family said it out loud, that the rest of the family came around and supported their decisions to seek help. So it seems that pride and presenting a certain image to others can play a huge part in BIPOC understanding of mental illness. Problems can be acknowledged, but typically until an elder member of the family breaks the mold and speaks out, the topic will be kiboshed before the rest of the family will begin to listen.

Speaking of family, I am one out of eight other siblings, one biological, and the other seven are half siblings. I am technically the middle child out of all of them. I grew up with different sets of them throughout my life, and never really got close to some of them until we all became adults. So, in many ways, I missed out a lot on their growing up and I was very curious to hear what some of them had to say about their experiences in mental health within our family. For me, growing up Filipino is such an interesting thing, because we tend to have so many “isms” for better or for worse. One of my siblings brought up some really good points about body image (some Filipino relatives love to mark the passage of time since they last saw you by mentioning how ‘fat’ you’ve gotten), religion (don’t get me started), and sometimes even being gaslit by your own family due to their own experiences from a different time within our culture. For me, growing up Filipino means having your own issues downplayed because your parents had to struggle so much more (allegedly — I feel like we can also be drama queens). I can remember on more than one occasion where letters of bills were used as a tool of guilt to make me more grateful for what has been bestowed upon me. What right do we as children have to complain, when we were born as Americans? Countless times I’ve heard how things in the Philippines were that much harder for them, which I don’t argue, but how does that help us, as American-born kids, process our own issues? The expectation becomes so much higher to live up to their own unfinished American dreams, and the denial of our own mental health problems quickly becomes a ticking time bomb…which has gone off a few times in my 20s.

I also reached out to some other demographics to get their take on this topic. Taiwanese-American comedian Eddie Hill mentioned, “Mental health is often seen but not heard in Taiwanese communities.” He continued, “no matter how severe, emotional or psychological concerns are always indirectly acknowledged but never addressed.”

Publicist Macy Harrell shared about her sister who deals with chronic depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, saying that as a Black family, it was very challenging for her parents to process and deal with these issues the “right” way as mental health is not traditionally prioritized in their culture.

So what’s the takeaway? After all these conversations across cultures, is the outcome a dead end? Are we as BIPOC doomed to struggle through unspoken truths and the stigmas of our respective ethnic families and their ingrained attitudes towards mental health? Well, for me, the short answer might be yes. There are some inherent things that won’t change because the bonds of our blood run deep into our ancestral past, and there are some things you have to accept growing up in an immigrant family. Some of us might not have the warm apple pie hugs and kisses when we scrape our knees. Some of us might not have the average “American” pass-the-potatoes round table discussion about what’s on our minds and how we feel. It is our unique experience that some of us have to go through this lack of openness, and more often than not, the complete absence of Full House style tender moments where the audience goes, “awww” when Bob Saget shares a soft parental bonding moment with DJ.

But that’s not our sob story, and that’s not to say we can’t ever have those moments within our families. We can have those conversations and learning experiences with our parents and family members if we try. I can’t promise that it will happen as easily as saying it out loud, and speaking your truth to them. Or if it will happen at all. But the operative word is “try.” All we can do is try and hopefully someone will listen and understand us when we say we’re struggling, and that they will see beyond their cultural bias. We can have our Joy Luck Club moment, in that it might be painful, and it might be sad, and it might be the hardest conversation we will ever have with our family. But hopefully, once the tears have been shed, and the battle lines have been withdrawn, we can begin to heal. And that usually happens with food. A bowl of chicken adobo. Freshly steamed bao. The most unnecessarily large bowl of noodles or curry. Once the food starts being served, you can know it’s being served with love, as it’s usually one of the only ways our family knows how to express it. And that in itself is acceptance and understanding, and a small step for the better.

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