By the time this blog will be shared, it will be World Mental Health Day. As of today, I do not believe there is anything more important than mental health in this world. Your first priority is to your mind, then your physical health, and then everything else. However, I did not always believe this nor did I know the importance of taking care of my mental health until recently.
Since part of today is all about illuminating and uplifting those battling mental health disorders, I wanted to reflect on my own mental health journey- the way I grew up perceiving mental health, my experience with Anxiety Disorder and Depression, how I practice self-care today, etc.
Mental Health in the South Asian Community
I am a South Asian American, and unfortunately there is a huge stigma surrounding mental health disorders and treatment in the South Asian community. Therapy is considered a huge waste of money as it is seen as no different from merely talking to someone. Stress is normal under every circumstance and something you just have to deal with, even if it is crippling. Only crazy people take medication. Depression is equivalent to ungratefulness. And Anxiety Disorder is just sheer ignorance as why would someone growing up in the United States have any reason to be anxious when their parents grew up in India in the 1900s.
Obviously, this does not reflect on every person in the South Asian community as many South Asians across the globe are fighting to destigmatize mental health disorders, but these are the messages a lot of South Asian Americans grow up internalizing.
Thus, I never really grew up hearing good things about people with mental health disorders, but I did hear a lot about how important it is to perform academically. And a lot of my friends have experienced the same.
What It Was Like When I First Got Diagnosed
I developed Anxiety Disorder, Depression, and Fibromyalgia in high school. As physical health is something we are taught to value, I was quick to notice that the excruciating pain throughout my body was something abnormal that needed treatment(it was really shocking for 15 year old me to learn that doctors actually can’t “treat” a lot chronic conditions, including fibromyalgia)
However, following the lessons and misunderstandings I was fed as a child, I did not see my newfound excessive worry, crying, and loss of motivation as something to be concerned about but rather as just me being sad about the lifestyle changes I was going through.
I clearly remember how I was diagnosed. I went to the doctor for an appointment regarding my chronic pain, and he asked me if I had noticed any changes in my mood recently. I responded with, “Yeah I have been crying a lot more and I experience difficulty breathing when I cry, but I don’t think they are panic attacks or anything like that” The doctor responded with “Uh..that sounds like a panic attack to me”, and then asked me a few more questions regarding my mental health and established I have Anxiety Disorder.
After I got diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder, I still did not see it as something I have to take seriously. I attended maybe one or two sessions with a therapist after my doctor recommended it, and then decided school was more important. The school year that followed my diagnosis is the year I remember when I ponder how much my life has changed. I was completely lost.
I stopped attending class. I stopped studying. I cried almost every single night. I felt angry all the time. I started eating like crazy. I was no longer the Riya I knew and somewhere I knew that Riya would be gone for a very long time(I’m going to be honest- I have never fully accepted that my chronic conditions may last forever, I didn’t then and I don’t now).
My parents slowly grasped the severity of what I was going through, but they did not really understand it. They did not know how to handle it or what to do. They tried their best, but their lack of knowledge on what to do and what to say did hurt me at times.
As high school started to come to an end and as my conditions started to become more familiar, I started researching mental health disorders and talking about my experience more. Some of my friends also opened up to me about the hard emotions they were experiencing, and how they wish there was someone to help them. Through my research and discussions, I learned that therapy is more than just talking to someone, but rather a form of healthcare that multiple people in the US need but cannot afford.
Desperate for help, I started seriously attending therapy sessions my second semester of college. My first permanent therapist and I did not have a very good relationship, so I did not make much progress with her. However, my second therapist, who I started with a few months ago, has changed my life.
I have learned different forms of self-care such as journaling and mindful breathing. I have learned to foster relationships that bring out the best in me and learned that I don’t have an obligation to relationships that are detrimental to my health. I’ve learned how to slow down and notice my thoughts instead of judge them. I truly feel like I have become more loving towards myself and thus, happier.
It took me a while, but I am glad I chose to pursue therapy.
I grew up hearing about psychiatric medication being an awful thing- not just within my community but psychiatric medication was always portrayed as ‘bad’ in movies, books, TV, and more. My parents were against the idea of me taking psychiatric medication for a long time as well as they thought it would have adverse side effects that outweigh the benefits. Eventually, I reached the point where I had to take them, regardless of the backlash and discouragement I received.
I have now learned that there is no shame in taking medication. There is no shame in medication not working either, your doctor is making a living off of working with you to find what’s best for you. Taking medication was a tough choice but it debunked a lot of misconceptions I had about pharmaceutical psychiatric care. I have not been on it for too long, so I have not seen results yet, but hopefully I do soon. If I don’t, then that’s okay too, I will explore other options with my doctor.
What I Have Learned From My Journey
To conclude, this journey has taught me a lot about myself and what is important to me. 1) I learned that going to therapy, taking medication, and doing what is best for your mind are all forms of strength, not weaknesses. 2) My experience with Anxiety Disorder and Depression actually made those around me more empathetic. There was a time my parents told me I had to be an engineer, but now they tell me I should be whatever I want as long as I am taking care of myself. They no longer immediately react harshly when they see me having episodes of panic and anxiety, but rather ask me how they can help and tell me I can always come to them if I ever need to talk to someone.
I have learned the importance of getting fresh air, taking breaks, eating well, drinking water, and listening to your body.
Obviously, not everyone’s journey is the same and many people battling mental health disorders don’t have a good support system. If this is you, I want you to know that it’s okay to not have it all figured out. It’s okay to feel different. It’s okay to feel lost. You are not weak or “crazy” or worthy of less respect and admiration, you are a human being with immense resilience. Always remember that.