05/08/2012 01:05 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

The Guilt and Shame of Mental Illness in The Latino Community

When I was severely depressed in high school, my parents were unequipped to deal with such a foreign problem. They grew up in a dusty town in rural Mexico where the daily concern was "what the hell are we going to eat?" not "why do I feel such existential despair?" I come from a long lineage of peasants, the disenfranchised of rural northern Mexico. Our people worked hard. Their time was spent finding ways to feed their families and were likely not ruminating or dwelling about their place in the world. My paternal grandmother was a maid before she married. My maternal grandfather was a migrant worker in the Bracero program. My parents worked in factories.

So when at the age of fifteen, I was sobbing uncontrollably in my room about my inability to fit in, about the meaninglessness of everything, my parents were rightfully confused. I had food and shelter. What could I be lacking?

Thinking about my deteriorating mental health in the context of my parents' hardships made me feel like a real asshole. How could I feel such despair when my father had glue burns on his arms from the machines at the factory? What kind of brat was I? Even now, when I complain about my career struggles, I feel a hot froth of guilt spread through me. I am complaining to people who have performed backbreaking labor in factories for most of their lives. What right do I have to grumble about my unhappiness? This is the double whammy of growing up Catholic and Mexican. I'll feel guilty if I throw away a half-eaten, stale biscuit. You might call this a talent.

The children of immigrants often experience a gigantic chasm between them and their parents. I don't begrudge my parents for not knowing how to deal with my mental illness. My depression was "a First World problem." I bet if anyone in rural Mexico felt sad, they just picked up a hoe and kept working in the fields. What choice would you have?

When at 15 my depression landed me in the hospital, my parents finally understood the severity of my problem. In some ways, I don't think it was possible for them to grasp it until I plummeted to such a sorry state. They likely thought it was teenage angst that would pass with time. But after the hospitalization, they frantically took me to a series of doctors, desperate to find me effective treatments. During this time I took a plethora of anti-depressants, none of which worked (one medication even made me feel like I wasn't a person, like I didn't exist), but they continued to help me however they could though it would take years for me to recover.

A CNN article published in 2010 states that mental illness among Latinos and whites in the U.S. are about the same but that whites were 60 percent more likely to receive mental health treatment. Only 20 percent of Latinos with a psychological disorder consult a general health-care provider and 10 percent contact a mental-health specialist. So in addition to ignorance, our communities often lack resources and time. Many of us are uninsured. It angers me that mental health, something so vital to living, is treated like a luxury.
The stigma of psychological disorders is also a huge hurdle. Latinos don't want to be labeled "loco/a." To some, mental illness is a manifestation of weakness, which is not easy for many immigrants to accept. I know several people in my extended family gossiped about how crazy I was during my most difficult years. It was not until I grew older, became self-sufficient, and received an advanced degree that this notion of me began to change.

It's our responsibility to explain to our communities that depression is not a choice or a sign of weak character. No one chooses to wake up unable to function, feeling like life is utterly meaningless. We have to learn to forgive ourselves. Depression is so often beyond our control and usually there is no one to blame. It's up to those of us who have experienced depression to change the stigma by discussing it without guilt or shame.