“I think you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder,” my therapist, a fellow Latina, told me during our second meeting when I attended a rehabilitation center for alcohol use disorder in the summer of 2015 at the age of 29. “Does anyone in your family have a mental illness?”
I was dumbfounded at her words; not only the casual way with which she brought up a potential mental health issue, but also the ease with which she discussed these topics that I was taught never to discuss. That summer that I was officially diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder.
Growing up, my Latinx family discouraged any talk about mental health. There was a very large sense that if we talked about our mental problems that we would be labeled “la loca” or “the crazy one”—the relative who was off in some way because they dealt with tragedy or mental health issues. This family member was shunned by the others, not taken seriously, and maybe not even invited to a lot of family events. I felt like every other Latinx family I knew growing up had the same stories of some aunt or other distant relative who was “la loca,” and so I learned to keep my mouth shut about the worries and anxieties that were constantly on my mind.
Unfortunately, that “la loca” narrative is a common one. “Many Latinx individuals continue to engage the ‘la loca’ narrative when referring to those who seek mental health services,” says April Mayorga, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Burbank, California. “Using that term continues to reflect defensiveness and stigma. Latinx culture has many different layers to family dynamics that work against seeking out therapy.”
“Latinx culture has many different layers to family dynamics that work against seeking out therapy.” — April Mayorga, family therapist
For my family, simply ignoring the problem—and hoping it goes away—had been our primary way of dealing with any mental health struggle. “Our culture has suffered an incredible amount of trauma,” Mayorga says. “Attempting to utilize avoidance as a coping mechanism has become an embedded means of survival.”
Not being able to talk to my family about my mental health struggles had consequences early on. I was always taught to be a good student and the “perfect immigrant daughter,” and I wore my costume well. But beneath my good grades, there was an incredible amount of anxiety that led me to self-harm as a teen and even attempt to commit suicide a month before my 16th birthday. All of it was because of the incredible stress I was feeling to continue to be the “perfect immigrant daughter”, and all of it was a consequence of not being able to discuss the anxiety I felt over not being able to live up to my parent’s expectations. Self-harm became my primary coping mechanism for my then-undiagnosed mental illness.
Unfortunately, harmful coping mechanisms are not uncommon for Latinx young people—especially Latinas. A 2017 youth risk behavior surveillance survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 10.5 percent of Latina adolescents aged 10-24 years in the U.S. attempted suicide in the past year (compared to 7.3 percent of white females, 5.8 percent of Latinos, and 4.6 percent of white male teens). The same survey also found that half of all Latina teens said they felt hopeless, a feeling I can certainly relate to. Looking back, I likely suffered from depression as well as with my undiagnosed anxiety disorder as a teen, and turned to cutting as a way of coping because I had nobody at home that I could talk to about my thoughts and feelings.
“Some harmful coping mechanisms I’ve seen especially in young people are self-harming, such as cutting, and electronic addictions,” says Yuritzy Gomez Serrano, an associate marriage and family therapist based in California. “Some other common coping mechanisms are substance use addictions, aggression, and isolation. There are some coping mechanisms that are seen as positive qualities in our society such as overworking, which can be hard to identify but also have a negative impact on our overall lives.”
After my years of self-harm as a teen, I threw myself into overworking as a young adult. My anxiety and depression didn’t catch up to me until many years later when I was working a dream job that, to be honest, sent me into a spiral of anxiety that I hadn’t felt since those early “perfect immigrant daughter” years. I had never fully dealt with my previous years of self-harm, but I knew now that it was not a healthy coping mechanism after seeing self-harm portrayed as something that a movie or TV character needed to heal from, such as in the movie Girl, Interrupted. Instead, I turned to alcohol as the solution to my problems, not understanding that I was simply turning to substance abuse to “solve” my mental health issues.
Sadly, drinking was like pouring gasoline on the fire of my anxiety. Eventually, with my parents help, I sought treatment for my substance use disorder and discovered that what I had been suffering from all along was a generalized anxiety disorder. After having spent years not talking about my mental illness with my family, I was surprised when they helped me with my alcohol abuse—but not shocked when they doubted my therapist’s anxiety diagnosis. (After all, ignoring mental illness was common for us.) Despite these doubts, we all started to recognize the toll that this had taken not only on me personally but on my family as a whole.
“Ignoring mental health issues can cause significant problems individually and within a family,” says Marisol Solarte-Erlacher, MA, a licensed professional counselor based in Denver, CO. “For example, a mother with untreated postpartum depression can begin to develop into more chronic depression, or a young Latina experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts will attempt suicide [possibly successfully] because she doesn’t disclose this to her family. Not discussing issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders will impact all members in a family, thus having an impact on future generations.”
Having gone through the difficulty of recovering from substance use disorder, I vowed to make my mental health a real priority. Since exiting rehab five years ago, I have continued to see a therapist for my generalized anxiety disorder and have recently began to take anti-anxiety medication because I recognized that having a baby during the COVID-19 pandemic had sent me spiraling into a heightened level of anxiety that I could no longer handle with just talk therapy.
At the same time, I have come out of this experience with a newfound sense of purpose; that I must do better for future generations. Specifically, that I want to make a bigger effort to talk to my family about my and their mental health struggles, so that if nothing else, my son can grow up in a better environment than I did. Already, I have heard my papi tell my not-yet-six-month-old baby that “boys don’t cry.” The machismo stereotypes begin early, but it’s a cycle I plan to break.
I want to make a bigger effort to talk to my family about my and their mental health struggles, so that if nothing else, my son can grow up in a better environment than I did.
“Something simple that can help is simply talking about our feelings around our family,” says Gomez Serrano. “It takes practice to help us get more comfortable in talking about our current state, especially if this was not modeled as children. The more you share feelings, the more it allows others to share theirs.”
For example, I plan to talk to my mami about my fears over my upcoming LASIK surgery in order to strengthen the way we share our feelings. Of course, it’s not necessarily as easy as all that. I know that I will need to continue to discuss my feelings and, more importantly, my mental health openly with my family.
“We need to start talking about mental health the same way we discuss our physical health,” says Solarte-Erlacher. “If we are able to normalize how mental health issues are not a character defect, but a way that our brain is functioning or adapting to our environment, then we can have a conversation that is not based in shame. As parents, we can start simply by making it okay to have feelings. Rather than tell kids that they are bad or wrong for expressing normal feelings, make it a normal part of everyday conversation. Help them start to feel safe about sharing feelings.”
Mayorga agrees. “Normalizing mental health at a young age can be impactful in positive ways,” she says. “Children, for example, will feel sad, angry, happy, and excited; and all of those emotions are valid, natural, and okay.” She also emphasizes that, while it is natural to want to avoid negative experiences and emotions, we must teach out communities how to respond appropriately and safely.
So the next time my papi says that “boys don’t cry” to my son, I will let him know that we don’t say things like that anymore because my son, like all children, will sometimes feel sad and want to cry. And as my son grows, I will continue to talk about and acknowledge his feelings—as well as my own. Whether that means letting him cry on my shoulder at his first heartbreak or being honest with him about the suicidal ideation I experienced as a teen.
Although I know these conversations will be difficult to have, and I will make sure we have them in an age-appropriate way, I am determined to help my son grow up in a Latinx family that can, at the end of the day, talk about our mental health. And there’s nothing “loca” about that.