Mental illness does not discriminate—it affects people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. While people of all socio-economic and education levels are vulnerable, poverty is a particularly exacerbating factor. When people struggle with poverty, their quality of life is compromised. The hardships and stress they experience often put them at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and an acute need for mental health services.
When people experience mental health issues, they may have challenges focusing on school, parenting and managing family life, finding a good job, or earning sufficient income; it may be difficult to find housing and they may experience discrimination and negative attitudes. This can lead to isolation and an inability to lead a healthy and productive life. In this article, we shall discuss why mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we.
“The color of my skin and shape of my eyes makes me different & incapable of finding love.”
I’ve always believed this lie I’ve told myself over the years. It’s strange how brief moments or memories from our childhood can impact our internal narrative and the way we view ourselves. This notion that I was unlovable and different was so deeply positioned in my mind that it affected most of my relationships. With time (and frankly, a lot of therapy), I have learned to differentiate the false narrative by focusing on the facts, or what’s really true in my life.
While my skin color and eye shape may be different from some, it does not make me incapable of finding love.
I remember in middle school watching a Janet Jackson video with a classmate. I thought she was captivating and was truly amazed by her voice and beauty. My classmate then chirped in, “You know, I don’t think the boys in our school would like her because she isn’t White.”
This statement had such a profound negative impact on my way of thinking. Over the years, I’ve had to realize that this racist, intolerant remark was just a reflection of one person. Just because I heard it from ONE person as a middle school preteen does not make it an absolute truth.
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My parents are originally from the Philippines. They immigrated here in 1975 and lived the quintessential “American Dream.” My father was a successful anesthesiologist and my mother was a registered nurse. They were able to leave a third-world country and raise their three children in America. I will never be able to share my gratitude for all the hard work they experienced to have my brothers and I live a comfortable life growing up.
However, wealth and being born in America do not exclude you from racism. Growing up in a small town in New Jersey, I was frequently the only Asian in the room. This feeling of being the “outcast” has contributed to many of my characteristics and even subconscious feelings. I endlessly wanted to fit in and it’s hard to just be myself. This feeling of caring about what other people think has hindered me in so many ways. It causes insecurity within yourself that you will never be enough.
I also live with bipolar disorder type I. As an Asian American female living with a mental illness, I have felt so much shame. It took two diagnoses of bipolar disorder for me to finally accept that I needed help.
This unwillingness to seek mental health services is prevalent in Asian American communities. According to an article published in the American Psychological Association, “Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than Whites.”
Growing up in a Filipino household, mental health was not something that we typically discussed. To my knowledge, none of my relatives had any formal diagnosis of mental illness. It was a shock to myself and even my family when the doctors revealed my erratic behavior and fluctuating moods were symptoms of bipolar disorder I.
Why are members of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community so reluctant to find help? In my personal experience, it breaks down into three important areas:
- Past racial trauma
- The stigma surrounding mental illness
There are several stereotypes that I have felt pigeonholed. One is the “model minority.” This view can inaccurately portray Asian Americans as “successfully integrating into mainstream culture and having overcome the challenges of racial bias.”1 According to this portrayal of how people expected me to behave, the pressure to fit into this mold of being a “model minority” has heavily caused me to not only be a people pleaser but also have an unrealistic goal of perfection.
Why would I want to share any mental health difficulties or challenges I was facing? I already felt so much anxiety that I had to be perfect. After my initial diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I clung to this idea of perfection. If I’m supposed to be a “model minority,” how can I reveal to others that I am mentally and chronically ill? My mental health was deteriorating at the time, keeping everything bottled up inside.
If I’m supposed to be a ‘model minority,’ how can I reveal to others that I am mentally and chronically ill?
Another stereotype I have struggled with is Asians, especially Asian women, are regarded as submissive and overly compliant. I have heard remarks as being a “mail order bride” and accusations that I was only marrying my Caucasian husband for his money.
In an article published by the American Psychological Association, “Asian American women are thought of as faceless, quiet and invisible, or as sexual objects.” This over-sexualized view of Asian females has triggered my bipolar symptoms such as hypersexuality when manic. I was seeking love in unhealthy ways because I didn’t have the love for myself to get help.
Past Racial Trauma
When I was five years old, I remember riding the bus to kindergarten. There were boys, maybe a couple of years older than me, sitting in the front. They happened to be White, and they kept pulling back the corners of their eyes while looking at me. It took me only seconds to realize they were making fun of me. Writing and even speaking aloud about this still triggers me. My eyes well up, embarrassingly, because it happened so long ago but is something that has stayed with me my entire life. It was the first time I noticed that I was “different.” I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, where there weren’t a lot of Asians. Moments like this continued to happen while I was growing up. I remember a boy, maybe in 3rd grade, outwardly calling me a “chink” on the playground. I’m 75% Filipino and 25% Chinese. I’m of Asian descent. I also happen to be living with bipolar disorder. These two factors in my life have always made me feel misunderstood, like an outcast, and even overlooked.3
I wrote those words last year for another publication, and today reading it back, I still feel the pain and embarrassment. I had always felt like I had to overcompensate for everything I did, especially when it came to how I looked.
I thought by fully assimilating into Caucasian American ideals, it would be easier for me to fit in and be accepted. I would get highlights to lighten my hair; I would wear colored contacts and false lashes to make my eyes appear larger. I did not want my mom to pack Filipino dishes for school lunches because of the anxiety from feeling different. I did not realize that by doing this, I was also rejecting my own culture.
Living with bipolar disorder is like living with an invisible illness. While people may discriminate against my race on the outside, I felt somewhat ‘protected’ knowing my mental illness was hidden.
The Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
A University of Maryland study revealed that mental health is considered taboo in Asian communities. Most still feel discouraged from pursuing help or outside resources regarding mental health concerns due to fear of alienation.
I started a blog in the summer of 2020. We had recently purchased a farmhouse and I thought how fun it would be to detail my experiences with homesteading. Turns out, I didn’t know squat. So when I came to writing the “About Me” section, I really wanted to keep it candid—I revealed that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My blog, farmerish.org, then turned into a mental health outlet, and started my writing journey opening up about my mental illness.
The response was overwhelming. I received so much support from family, friends, and even strangers across the internet. I realized by opening up about my mental illness I also was destigmatizing the stigma surrounding mental health as a whole.
So What’s Next?
Microaggressions regarding my race still occur. I was in Target at the beginning of the pandemic, and a woman was holding a cleaning product. Looking my way, she loudly said, “I’m going to buy this product because it was made in AMERICA.” Now, I don’t know if she was feeling extra patriotic, but her tone was discriminatory, which is hurtful because I AM American.
People lack an understanding of racism if they have never experienced it themselves. Our belief system is mostly ingrained in us by how we were raised and what we experienced. My hope is that by sharing my perspective, we’ll stop and think before we speak. That our actions and words have consequences, especially for those dealing with their mental health. Above all else, just be kind.
I have extended kindness and acceptance to not just those around me but most importantly, to myself. Mark Twain stated, “The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.” I have learned to embrace my culture and be comfortable in my own skin. In turn, I’ve learned that I am worthy and capable of love.