Mental Health and Latinidad: Rompiendo el silencio
Written by: Melanie Martinez
I locked myself in my bedroom…and then came to my senses and unlocked it. The only people that were allowed to lock doors in my house were la gente que pagan biles. Instead, I locked myself in the bathroom and turned the shower on to drown out the sound of my hyperventilating. As I got older, I was brave enough to leave the house and sit in the park on the corner of my block or “run away” to my madrina’s house – a fifteen minute walk away. Anything to hide my panic attacks from my parents.
I was born and raised in the heart of Washington Heights, NYC by immigrant parents. Mami migrated from Cuba at eighteen years-old and Papi from La Republica at a ripe thirteen. Their love story maneuvered its way from a bodega in the Bronx, to payphone-jonesing, to my grandparent’s living room where my dad was allowed to visit. He visited her for four years until abuelo grew impatient and asked, “Oye, y cuando se van a casar?” And they were wed in the most traditional 1986 wedding one could fathom. Fast forward almost twenty-nine years and they’ve successfully raised and moved two kids from Washington Heights to suburban New Jersey. Well…almost successfully.
My younger brother being born a wild child caused my family to place all their expectations on me. When it came to school, he would get away with a minimally passing grade and I would be asked why I only made second honor roll. When it came to matters of the home, he was allowed to be angry, huff and puff, and slam doors, while I couldn’t talk back to my parents unless I wanted punishment. I was a saint in the classroom and the proclaimed problem child in the household. I guess you could say it was the birth of his machismo and the advent of my emotional complexes. I went on to graduate from an accredited private college…in four years as expected. The road there was anything but glamorous, but the road back to my house after having had lived in a dorm on my own was something I wasn’t prepared for.
I am forever grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made in order to bring my brother and me up comfortably, but living in a traditional Cuban-Dominican household meant doing some sacrificing of my own. I was raised as a millennial young woman in a conventional home. I was seemingly allotted more freedom than many of my [mostly Dominican] friends, except I wasn’t allowed to express myself in the ways that felt natural to me. Like many products of the Dominican Diaspora, I grew up as a modern mind contradicted by cultural axioms. Crying when I wasn’t given good enough reason to, being upset, or my favorite, “having an attitude,” was not allowed in my house. Not only was it disrespectful if I was open about my emotions, but it was cosa de gringos. My family doesn’t practice racism, but raising my voice or speaking back when reprimanded was something that was only acceptable in Caucasian families and sitcoms.
Years of repressed emotions and having to hide behind the respect my parents asked for has resulted in major anxiety and depression as an adult. Coming to the realization that my panic wasn’t just anger, but an actual mental disorder was bewildering to say the least. If I was confused about my emotions before, I could only explain my new state of mind as the Grammy’s of confusion. I was strolling through The Hall of Fame of disorientation and complete perplexity. I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling because…that’s what got me there in the first place. My fear not only lied in the fact that they wouldn’t understand, but that I would be an embarrassment to my family and culture. I had to remain strong and silent – just as I was raised to be.
A Puerto Rican salsa prophet by the name of Marc Anthony once said, “El silencio no es remedio para calmar el sufrir.” He was right. No semblance of silence or strength was enough to calm the blazing forest-like fire that burned on within me. So one day…I popped. A full blown panic attack took me on a one- way ride on the depression express. Not being able to physically do anything for myself, my family was forced to step in and take care of me. I didn’t have the mental capacity for embarrassment anymore, and neither did they. We all had to quickly make space for this new idea that my age, upbringing and heritage didn’t excuse me from mental ailments. I was human before I was Dominican or Cuban, and now I was a human with generalized anxiety.
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental disorders in the United States affecting 40 million Americans eighteen years and over. Anxiety and depression in Dominican women in the United States? Insurmountably high as per the latest study by the World Health Organization. Diagnosing is only the first step followed by treatment via therapy and/or medication. How many Americans are in active treatment for their symptoms? Not enough. A study completed by the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos estimated that only 2.5 percent of Latinos use anti-anxiety medications. I myself opted out of pills, but I am one of very few Dominicans…Americans…or just people who elected therapy as treatment. Where does this resistance stem from? Quite possibly from our mother countries. Although a mental health plan (revised in 2010) exists in the Dominican Republic, mental health expenditures only equate to about 0.61% of the country’s health budget. How could one accept help when they don’t know they need it? The defiance from the people of the Diaspora trickles down from years of miseducation. Mental health is not a national priority.
Anxiety is feeling too much and depression is not feeling anything at all. It’s a constant war that I’ve chosen to fight. Breaking down the details of my conditions was the toughest pill I’ve ever had to serve my parents. Explaining that their origin mostly stems from years of emotional trauma due to repressed expression was probably an even tougher pill. How could I, a young woman who has been given every tool possible to build the happiest life, be so down? How could I not want to wake up and kiss the ground when some people in their countries will never get to feel how plush a fur rug feels? I’ve relentlessly puzzled through their possible thoughts and responses in my head, but I am very grateful that even though all of this may have been disheartening at first, Mami and Papi have been present for every step of my recovery.
I think I speak for most Latinos when I say that therapy and counseling is not as welcomed as it is in other cultures. Since we pride ourselves for being based on the foundations of family, Dominicans especially thrive on the idea that we don’t need anyone else – especially not a stranger telling us how to live our lives. I wouldn’t be a millennial woman if I didn’t try to break the mold and walk to the beat of my own tambora. And that I have. I managed to seek help for myself without losing grip of my core family values and gems from my upbringing. Mami and Papi will always be there when I need a consejo, but it’s not their job to heal me. I’ve left that up to time, my therapist and I. These days, this Cuban- Dominican warrior is doing just fine in these New York City streets.
World Health Organization – Report of the Assessment of Mental Health Systems in Dominican Republic – 2008
World Health Organization – Mental Health Atlas 2011 – Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse – Dominican Republic
Prevalence of anxiety and its correlates among older adults in Latin America, India and China: cross-cultural study
Largest Study of Hispanics/Latinos Finds Depression and Anxiety Rates Vary Widely Among Groups