By Crystal Lopez-Franco
Weird. Unaccepted. Judged. Growing up as a Mexican-American in a home that did not prioritize Mexican culture, I developed these feelings early in my youth. I was influenced by many different cultures growing up. As I encountered people from the same cultural background who were more connected with the traditions than I was, internalized conflict developed.
In my Hispanic household, mental health is rarely talked about. It is typically accepted that whatever sadness, anger, loneliness or other emotions you may be feeling should be kept to yourself. In fact, “mental health” wasn’t a term I heard much growing up, and I didn’t really understand until my late teenage years. Instead of sharing what I was feeling with my family openly, I swept it under the rug. So did most of my family members: sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and my mom. We all swept our own problems under the rug and found it easier to avoid the conversations. We didn’t understand each other; we each had our own stress and issues going on throughout our lives and we found it was easier to keep our struggles to ourselves than have to explain our emotions. I was only concerned with my physical health, ignoring mental health. I believed that if I stayed physically fit, my mind would follow. I was wrong.
Fortunately, in my early teenage years my mom saw the unhealthy physical coping mechanisms I developed, and to help me deal with the anxiety and depression, she decided to place me in therapy. It was helpful, but it was definitely hard. I couldn’t relate to my therapist since we came from different cultural backgrounds. A lack of shared cultural standards meant we struggled to connect during our meetings. When I finally began to feel some form of connection with my therapist, my family had to move to a rural area with limited access to mental health resources.
My mom was a single parent and we endured many financial strugglings. As the cost of living in the Bay Area skyrocketed, my mom packed us up and we moved across the state. From the bustling and multicultural San Francisco Bay Area to the dry heat and dusty sand in California’s Imperial Valley — a rural agricultural desert with a prominent Hispanic cultural community. This cultural shock took an emotional toll. People saw me as “different” because I didn’t meet the cultural standards they applied to their Mexican neighbors. I tried to fit in, by changing who I was; I attempted to dress differently, master the Spanish language, and even tried listening to more Latin music just to fit in with my peers. Constantly attempting to adhere to the cultural norms of my peers prevented me from finding any mental stability at home or school.
With few resources available, I went back to dealing with mental health challenges on my own. When I found myself struggling mentally, I either ignored it or turned to harmful coping mechanisms. If I didn’t physically cope with mental struggles, I would resort to isolation. I didn’t get out of bed for school, I neglected my friendships, and I did not eat. When I did eat — it wasn’t healthy, and when I did get out of bed — I was forced to. In short, I did whatever made me feel better for the moment without thinking about my long-term mental health.
As an adolescent, I didn’t view my mind as something that needed to be nurtured. If I had been aware that mental health was just as important as physical health, I would have had an easier time navigating my mental health journey. Considering 1 in 5 adults struggle with mental health, it seems critical to raise the importance of it in early childhood. Breaking down the negative stigma many cultures carry toward mental health and educating around it could have largely impacted the way my family addressed mental health. Normalizing the struggle of mental health would have allowed my family, and allow future families to accept and address it. Programs such as community outreach to the immigrant population would be extremely helpful in educating cultural populations about the benefits of discrete mental health assistance.
Of course, my mental health isn’t completely “healed”. But here is a difference, and it is so important: Today I understand that mental health is just as important as physical health. Taking the time for self-care, whether it be journaling, hiking, or simply calling a friend, all impacts my mentality and how I perceive myself. There are always going to be barriers to understanding myself. I am not a perfect being, and I will never be. But accepting my flaws, old and new, and growing from them encourages me to continue living my life under my own rules. Even though others perceived me as something I wasn’t throughout my youth, I now understand that what mattered most was how I took care of myself to create a positive self-identity. Finding yourself and understanding your mental health requires a lifetime of self-discovery; which is okay.