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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Mental health is generational in minority communities. Acknowledge it

Opinion-generational-mental-health

This column is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.


Growing up, my family didn’t talk about mental health. The subject rarely came up, and when it did, it was shut down immediately. Feeling any sort of bad feelings was just that: bad, something you should avoid at all costs. Uncomfortable feelings were not to be felt, and they certainly were not to be talked about. I was under the impression that I was — and always would be — completely fine. 

It’s difficult to place when exactly I began to struggle with mental health. Despite a “fine” upbringing, somewhere along the way grew the ever-present pit in my stomach; the racing, unintelligible thoughts clouding every social encounter; and the insistent need to know, “are you sure they don’t hate you?”

I told myself that my experience was normal. Everyone was supposed to have a bit of self-hatred, right?

But when getting out of bed became a chore and interacting with others felt like running a marathon, I knew something needed to change. It took me months to gain the courage to approach my parents. I felt the full weight of all the stigma surrounding mental health that was present both in my own family and throughout my entire culture.

When I finally revealed my struggles to my parents, they were less than enthusiastic. They weren’t necessarily hostile; they were simply lost. They had no idea how a kid with friends, good grades and a financially stable family could be anything but fine. They recalled feeling similarly when they were young, attempting to convince me that struggling was a normal part of the human experience.

Regardless, I insisted on starting therapy. The weekly appointments were always somewhat predictable. After a few minutes of “I totally understand where you’re coming from” and “I can see how that’s difficult for you,” my therapist would always circle back to the same question: “How did you feel as a child?”

A few diagnoses and multiple therapists later, it became clear to me that my issues were not standard. Even more unsettling though, was the realization that they didn’t come out of nowhere. My attachment issues and the way I spoke to myself weren't just spontaneous, unlucky mutations of the mind with no basis — they were the result of my upbringing.

I grew resentful of my family. I blamed them for giving me my dysfunctional thought patterns. How could they claim to love me while damaging my mind as it was forming? All of the suppressed tears, the avoidance of emotional conversations, the lack of emotional safety — it was all contributing to my unhappiness. I concluded that they deliberately placed struggles on my shoulders out of malice.

As I grew older, I began to notice glaring similarities between myself and my parents. It was in the way my mom talked about herself, the pressure my dad put on himself to be successful, the views they had on love and relationships. I saw myself in the way they criticized themselves. I heard my own voice as they discounted their successes and magnified their failures. I had inherited my poor mental health from something other than my own childhood.

The way my parents raised me was a reflection of their own upbringing in India, where the stigma surrounding mental health is undeniably worse. My parents likely had little resources to turn to if they felt similarly in their youth. Suppressing their feelings was all they ever knew, so it’s no wonder I was raised to do the same.

After more challenging conversations with my parents, I realized that they had just as many — if not more — difficulties facing the topic of mental health. They became more patient with each day I continued to open up to them. My resentment dissolved and was replaced with empathy as I learned how to resist decades of willful ignorance and paralyzing stigma that had persisted through the many generations before me — an unjust silence that plagued not only my family, but my entire culture. I embarked on the arduous journey of healing alongside my parents rather than in spite of them.

Upon learning to adopt this forgiveness towards my family, I found that each conversation regarding mental health only became easier.

I’m not justifying unhealthy coping mechanisms and the suppression of emotional struggles by parents; rather, my goal is to acknowledge the generational persistence of poor mental health, especially in minority communities. It is essential to identify these long-standing patterns in order to dismantle them and prevent their extension to future generations. Forgiveness truly is freeing when dealing with these issues. After all, when facing something as complex and daunting as mental health, aren’t we all — parents included — just doing the best with what we know?

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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