By Juan Acosta
Mental Health? What is that?
I grew up questioning what mental health was. Growing up I did not learn in school or at home that one must care for their mental health. Conversations around the topic were little to none, and when the conversations presented themselves they were surrounded by stigma. I am a proud Mexican immigrant and recognize that my culture has a long way to go in addressing mental health. Growing up I watched and heard stuff in the media that taught boys to “toughen up,” and that if you showed emotion it was a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of.
As an immigrant in this country, there was a lot my family and I had to navigate. There were numerous barriers and systems that we struggled with. Around the time of middle school, I started feeling unwell. I was being teased and having my peers assume my sexuality prior to me being able to truly own that part of me. Every day I went to school I felt no excitement, only fear.
I felt like such a big part of my being was intruded by assumptions that although were not wrong, made me feel ashamed for being who I was. As I showed up to class I oftentimes had to deal with stomach aches and dizziness. My heart would beat faster. I did not know why I was feeling that way, and I did not tell anyone about it for a while because it was a feeling I felt every day. So I began to think that feeling that way was normal. Imagine your first day of school nerves. That’s what I felt like every single day, but it was all rooted in fear. My struggle with anxiety and depression began impacting my day-to-day life at the age of 13. The physical symptoms were just the beginning. I began having really dark thoughts and I just wanted to isolate myself from my peers and family. I wanted to hide and mask my pain in front of my family because I did not want my parents to worry about me. I knew they were already working hard to provide for my siblings and me. I oftentimes preferred my solitude, because it was in those moments that I was able to allow myself to feel, sing, dance, cry and whatever else I felt.
At 13, during the time I was struggling the most, I discovered advocacy and community work. It is what saved my life and gave me my purpose. I began seeking opportunities to contribute to change and to try to utilize my own lived experience to try to create a positive difference.
Since then, I have been able to collaborate with numerous organizations including Mental Health America, NAMI, Born This Way Foundation and more. I also was able to help draft an LGBTQ+ proclamation for my hometown of Woodland, CA that made history and passed for the first time in the town’s history. The Trevor Project reports that LGBTQ students who reported being bullied in the past year had three times greater odds of attempting suicide in the past year. This statistic only reiterates why it’s so important to provide youth with resources and to embrace them for who they are.
I am aware of what and who is supportive of me. Moreover, I know who I am and my purpose. I am in this space in hopes of making a difference, and I share my story in case a struggling teenager with big dreams needs some reassurance that things can get better and that they don’t need to struggle behind closed doors. My hope is to serve as a catalyst for change and to remind folks from all walks of life to own their light.