My defining moment was when I was 16 years old and went to a psychologist for the first time. The psychologist formally evaluated my symptoms and dug to see if they could diagnose me with a mental illness or disorder. It was the darkest moment of my life and I got my answer: major depressive disorder paired with anxiety symptoms.
Major depression, or clinical depression, plagued my youth. I only felt self-hatred, overwhelming guilt, shame and numbness to the point that I wished to disappear. At night, the anxiety of what horrors the next day would bring me kept me up. The toxic habits I had formed were not meant to keep me alive, they were meant to rattle me awake.
The doctors brought up options such as electroconvulsive therapy and antidepressants to my parents. They were shocked and horrified at the prospect that their only daughter would transform into an apathetic, spiritless shadow of the smiling baby they raised. Despite the severity of my symptoms and a second opinion, my parents denied any treatment besides talk therapy. To me, it was the biggest mistake they ever made.
The stigma against treating mental illness through psychiatric methods, such as medication, stands in the way of healing people of color.
Antidepressants raise serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that typically exists in low quantities in depressed people. Even though long-term antidepressant use is common, doctors normally prescribe it for only one year, allowing the patient to make the choice to continue it afterward.
Ultimately, my parents had two reasons why they did not want me to get antidepressants. One of them was that they thought that it was addictive. Addiction to antidepressants is unlikely. What may happen is dependence, which are the withdrawal symptoms that come after going off antidepressants. When it comes to other psychiatric medications, addiction is also unlikely.
The misinformation about addiction and psychiatric medication is damaging to people who have prescription medications for mental illnesses and for young people of color who may fear asking for help.
The stigma toward mental health for people of color is a huge reason why medication has been villainized. There is a warped perception in many communities of color that mental illnesses are signs of spiritual and moral weakness or selfish uselessness, with medication being clear-cut evidence to those crimes. To my parents, a prescription of antidepressants symbolized that I was “crazy.” But, the lack of medication for people who need it encourages unhealthy coping mechanisms.
I remember my mom encouraging me to get a summer job because according to her, if I was working, I wouldn’t have time to be depressed. However, I already had that work ethic. I already knew what it was like to accumulate academic accomplishments to hide how lonely and depraved of a person I thought I was. The way I was self-medicating neither improved nor soothed my mental health.
It is also common for teenagers with symptoms of depression or anxiety to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, potentially setting them up for addiction in the future. I definitely thought about going down this path. I was in the mindset that I was already a problem, so it did not matter if I started drinking alcohol. However, destigmatizing mental illnesses and the medications that treat them can prevent adolescents from turning to substance abuse as a remedy.
Even though I am in a significantly better place now than when I was 16, I still do not think I have achieved a satisfactory mental health checkpoint, and not because I do not have a regular self-care routine. There is only so much that cognitive therapy can fix.
I wrapped up my identity in my depression and anxiety. I finally had a name to the soundless struggle that I had been fighting for most of my adolescence. But the stigma toward psychiatric medication stopped me from fully closing that chapter of my life.
I know what it is like for white psychologists to invalidate my experiences and psychiatrists of color to repeat the same stigmas my parents have. The bias in psychology and psychiatry favoring the Western European experience and perpetuating mental health stigmas for people of color is unfair. Mental health providers need to understand the unique struggles, experiences and stigmas that people of color face to correctly diagnose and treat them.
As children of color, we have seen the effects of trauma and poor mental health in our own families. We might feel trapped by the stigmatizing comments from our elders about mental health. However, you are not betraying your culture or your family by asking for the guidance, or medication, that you deserve.