Mental Health

What Depression Means When You’re An Immigrant’s Kid

If you're a first-generation American, how do you tell your family about your depression when they believe that the answer to everything is to lift yourself up by your bootstraps?

In my sophomore year of high school, I started having bouts of suicidal ideation. I would think about how best to kill myself, painlessly, without putting any of my loved ones through a gruesome scene. By then, though, I had learned that these were not issues I could discuss with my family.

Mental health was not discussed in our home.  The reasons were cultural. As a family of first-generation Latino immigrants, my parents believed that even the strong only had a slight chance of making it. As for the weak? They didn’t survive.

My parents came to this country not just in search of a better life, but to escape dangerous situations back home. Their lives were full of anecdotes of surviving situations that we, their children growing up in the United States, could only imagine. For my parents, depression and anxiety were luxuries only the wealthy could afford. We didn’t avoid talking about mental health, so much as we lacked the very language necessary to discuss it.

For my parents, depression and anxiety were luxuries only the wealthy could afford.

Immigrants learn to live with sadness. The background noise of their lives is the impossible to fulfill yearning for family, friends, sights, and smells of a home left forever behind. Emotional pain is the price that immigrants pay in the hopes of a better future.

We, their children, benefit from this sacrifice. Our lives are filled with tremendous privilege. But for our parents… well, when you’re busy working several jobs to make ends meet, there is little time to stop and reflect if you’re happy.

My father grew up in rural Mexico. As the oldest of seven, he was forced to leave school after 6th grade to work in the fields so that he could help support his family.  At 17, he emigrated to the United States and worked two jobs to send money back home. A dutiful son, he never stopped providing support, even after I was born.

When I started imagining killing myself, my parents were divorcing, but in truth, they’d always led different lives. The majority of my life, they’d barely been in a room together, working opposite shifts so I could always have a parent at home with me. When they split, it was hard for me to shake the feeling that the divorce wasn’t, in part, my fault.

So I kept my suicidal thoughts to myself. I felt that whatever suffering I was going through simply couldn’t compare to the hardship they endured in their lives. After all, when your parents came to America escaping poverty and–in my mother’s case–a civil war, it’s hard to make a case that anything in your cushy American life is hard.

When your parents came to America escaping poverty and a civil war, it’s hard to make a case that anything in your cushy American life is hard.

Until my first year of college.

One day, I was in the middle of a lecture when my foot started shaking, and my heart felt fit to burst. I left class and attempted to drive home but was forced to pull over. I felt as if all the oxygen had suddenly been sucked from the car; an intense fear washed over my body.

Over the next few days, the symptoms worsened. I called my primary care doctor. Nothing was physically wrong with me, but she was Latina, and she suggested that maybe my heart palpitations and tremors were due to panic attacks.

When I told my mother that my doctor thought I might have an anxiety disorder, she reminded me why I hadn’t brought up my suicidal ideation years before. She said: “If you cannot handle life at 19, what will you do when you have real problems?”  It was insensitive, but she meant no harm. She was trying to protect me.

My whole life, my mother told me that I needed to be strong, because life was tough for people like us. When she was in high school back in Guatemala, her grandfather and other relatives had been slaughtered by guerillas. She and her six brothers and sisters were sent away into hiding; they were never able to return. It had an indelible effect on her world view: in her mind, loss and tragedy were always just around the corner. She wanted me to be prepared.

The fear that your accomplishments will never make up for the sacrifices your parents made for you is a pressure that many children of immigrants born in the United States have. For some of us, it drives us to succeed, surmounting cultural barriers to be the first in our families to, say, attend college, or become a doctor.

There is a burden to the “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” mentality that can further isolate children of immigrants

But that pressure can also take its toll on our psyches. There is a burden to the “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” mentality that can further isolate children of immigrants, even within their own families. It makes us feel like we shouldn’t ask questions, that we should have everything all figured out. We are outsiders at school, where we lack the social capital and financial resources of our peers; at home, we’re outsiders from families who view us as pampered and “too American.”

So between our feelings of inadequacy and the lack of awareness of mental health, no wonder Latinx-es like me can succumb to depression. In fact, a study published in 2014 found: “First-and second-generation Hispanics/Latinos were significantly more likely to have symptoms of depression than those born outside the U.S. mainland.” The Center for Disease Control also reported that Latinx students actually had a higher rate of suicide attempts than white and African-American kids.

Luckily for me, once I was diagnosed, I was fortunate enough to have both health insurance and a doctor who understood the stigma of mental health issues in my community. She urged me to seek counseling, and told me that if I found my home life stressful, I should consider living alone. She reassured me that the transition to college was difficult for everyone and that my feelings were absolutely normal.

To many, those small words of comfort and understanding might seem trite. But for me, they were life changing. For the first time, I knew I wasn’t alone. I also understood that it was acceptable to set boundaries with my family. That prioritizing myself was an act of survival that was just as important as the ones my mother had tried to teach me. In a culture that so often values community above the self, and that sanctifies women for dedicating themselves to the service of their families it can be difficult to say, I choose to take care of myself.

It would be a few more years before I actually sought counseling. Simply put, I had to overcome the ingrained stigma towards being labeled “crazy.” What finally pushed me into it was a Latina boss who shared she, too, had sought therapy in her life. Treatment helped me gain a better understanding of the issues that led me to be depressed and anxious in the first place. I realized self-care wasn’t a luxury, like my parents had taught me, but an act of survival.

I realized self-care wasn’t a luxury, like my parents had taught me, but an act of survival.

In my late 20s, I suffered a debilitating depressive episode. This time I used a combination of treatments to power through it, including medication, therapy, yoga, and life coaching. If I stepped outside myself it still felt indulgent to dedicate so much money and effort to my “frail” psyche, but I had started to see my mental health as a chronic condition that needed to be managed. And I didn’t feel guilty about it: I knew that I had privileges, information and resources my parents never had access to.

Today, I’m quite open about my mental health. I talk to my family about my depression and anxiety, and the more I am comfortable talking about it, the more others open up to me about their own struggles. I am frank and open with my parents about my troubles: for example, when I was on antidepressants, I made sure both of them knew I was having a hard time.

In turn, I think this openness has helped them live more emotionally healthy lives. A few years ago, my father had a mental health evaluation. During that session he was told that he too suffers from depression, and afterwards, we had a good conversation about how he thought this related to his difficult childhood, and addictive behaviors. As for my mother, while she is not yet open to seeing a therapist herself, her awareness of mental health issues has increased.

What goes around comes around. It turns out, my parents were on the right track: you need to give your children the tools to handle the ups and downs of life. But sometimes, children can give their parents those tools too.