Diasporic & Disabled is an interview series on what it's like to be a disabled/mentally ill, especially trans and/or queer, person of colour in the diaspora.
I started this project because I have a deep personal hunger to see and spread more stories about disabled and mentally ill, especially trans and/or queer, people of colour. Ever since I was diagnosed with a mental illness several years ago, I went out on a search to find memoirs of people with mental illnesses like me, only to discover that the most popular ones about my diagnosis were all written by upper middle class cisgendered heterosexual white women, and that I could not relate to them at all.
I know that for me personally, stigma around mental illness, disability, and going to therapy from both my 上海人 Shanghainese Chinese biological family and my Asian friends in the U.S. growing up prevented me from seeking help earlier. (I have been severely symptomatic since I was very, very young, which is unsurprising, given that I began experiencing severe abuse from a very young age.)
Growing up as an Asian immigrant in the U.S. in the 1990s, I witnessed absolutely zero positive representations of disabled and/or mentally ill people, let alone people of colour or immigrants (zero representation equals zero representation, for people of any race). There were also zero positive messages promoting actually seeking treatment for mental health issues. Indeed, this is probably true for most people growing up in the U.S., especially in the 1990s and before, regardless of race/ethnicity—but in my experience, the problems of ableism and mentalism were, and are, intensified and magnified for families and communities of colour, especially immigrant communities.
I definitely experienced more positive messages around seeking mental health help, treatment, and therapy among my white friends growing up than my friends of colour.
[ Trigger warning: Eating disorders and suicide in the next three paragraphs. ]
When I was 12 years old and suicidal, the only person I knew who encouraged me to seek mental health help was white. When I was in high school and struggling with an eating disorder, the only person I knew who encouraged me to seek mental health help, AND was going to therapy themself, was white. When I was newly 20 and finally considering starting therapy after struggling with severe depression, PTSD, and eating disorders for almost my entire life, my Asian friend who also grew up as an immigrant in the U.S. actively discouraged me.
I did not personally know of a single person of colour who went to therapy until I was almost 21 years old, in university. And during and after university, the online communities I was a part of, that centred and wrote about mental health and eating disorder recovery, consisted almost entirely of cis, usually heterosexual, white women.
Very early on, I heavily internalised the idea that it was a "white" thing to seek help; that it was a "white" thing to go to therapy; and that it was a "white" thing to even give care and empathy to someone with disabilities and/or mental illnesses. My profound feelings of shame around being disabled and mentally ill actually played a large part in why I attempted suicide multiple times over a period of many years—I was suicidal in large part because I was ashamed of being suicidal.
[ / End of triggering content. ]
One of my life missions is to help eradicate the ableism and stigma that we all internalise, especially the stigma that prevents us people of colour from seeking the help that we need. I hope that this interview series will help do just that.
Disabled/mentally ill people of colour, you're not alone. #DiasporicAndDisabled
Our first interview is with A, who requested to be anonymous.
A is a 27-year-old Black, cisgendered, able-bodied bisexual/queer woman who was born and raised in the U.S. and suffers from depression.
How long have you had symptoms of mental illness?
I have had symptoms of depression since childhood, since I was around five years old.
Have you sought professional help for your depression?
I've never taken medication because there's a particularly strong influence of religion in which I grew up where mental illness and health in general isn't talked about or taken seriously, and you're told to "just pray about it" and you'll be cured. The stigma affected me in how I've never sought professional help beyond school counseling.
Tell me more about the influence of religion where you grew up. How has it affected your mental health and how you seek help?
I grew up in a semi-strict religious household. Whenever I was sad or had questions, my mom would tell me to turn to God for answers. No matter how much I prayed, I never felt better. I was told and believed for a long time that my depression was just a spiritual battle I had to overcome, instead of something that had a medical basis that I could seek help for. I didn't talk about my depression with my family until I was well into adulthood.
When I would explain the reasons for my depression, my family wouldn't understand, and would say that it didn't make sense and I had no true reason to be depressed. I internalized this message and never sought real professional help except for talking to free counselors in high school, college, and at a place for troubled youth in my city called Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Although these seemed to help somewhat, for years I struggled with these emotions and feelings completely on my own, except when I confided in close friends.
I feel this so much. I have similar stories, though not the same. I meditated every day, did yoga every day, read tonnes of Buddhist books, and also prayed every day for years, and it never made my depression better, which made me feel even more hopeless.
I'm sorry that happened to you.
What was your experience with the counsellors in high school and college like?
My experience with the counselors in high school and college was very positive. They were always very kind and compassionate and let me speak about whatever was bothering me in my life. They allowed me to express myself and get to the heart of the matter, and they helped me delve deeper in order to figure out resolutions to situations in my life. I learned a lot about myself and was able to find healthier coping mechanisms instead of spiraling deeper into depression and self-loathing.
That's good, I'm glad it helped you.
Do your family and friends know about your mental illness? How did they respond to it?
My family was pretty dismissive in the beginning and as far as they're concerned, I'm a very happy individual who has gotten over depression.
Growing up, my family wasn't really supportive about mental health in general. We talked about our feelings sometimes, but we never put a name to certain mental health issues.
My friends have been much more supportive and validated my struggles. However, it was hard when I was very deep in my depression for people to understand what I was going through. A few people said that it just sounded like I was "occasionally sad" and not truly depressed, because I didn't feel like I needed medication to regulate my mood.
How did your friends' reactions make you feel?
It made me feel really alone and invalidated, like I was making up what I was going through. For a long time, I tried to hide and bury my feelings/emotions so as not to bother or bring down my more positive friends. It's funny, because now people look at me as the positive, sunny, optimistic friend, when before I was very dark, and it was difficult for me to see the "bright side" of things that people kept telling me to look at.
Do you feel like there is a specific stigma in the Black community that prevents people from seeking help for their mental illnesses?
I definitely feel like there's a huge stigma in the Black community when it concerns mental health. We're supposed to remain strong, especially if we are Christian/religious, and turn to God to solve our problems—and we're not supposed to talk about our struggles with other people, and especially not with doctors.
It's really damaging, because so many Black people are dealing with severe mental illness and are told not to seek counsel or help because it's "all in their heads" and that they just need to be "strong enough to withstand life's tests." Especially when it comes to marginalized genders, there's a specific stereotype of the "strong Black woman," where we're never supposed to need or even ask for help with anything and we should bear all our burdens alone. This harms everyone, and it has a lasting effect, especially on children, because damaged/traumatized children become adults who are still struggling with these issues.
Do you want to talk more about the "strong Black woman" stereotype?
It's really hard for me to talk about it because there are so many facets and nuances to it. It affects us in everything, from family, friendships, and romantic relationships, to the workplace, and even in our interactions with complete strangers. Having to put on a brave face and pretend that everything is okay all the time is exhausting. We always have to pretend we're okay, because showing weakness is pretty much impossible; we put on a mask to survive, and showing any little chip in the armor or cracks in the mask can be our downfall.
We aren't allowed the grace to simply exist and be human, as flawed as the next person.
How do you feel like this destructive stereotype affects Black women's mental health?
It affects us in that we don't seek help when we need it, and even when we do get help, we often don't have the proper resources or right people helping us. The intersection of misogyny and anti-Black racism against Black women is called misogynoir, which means we face both simultaneously.
So oftentimes, even in mental healthcare, misogynoir prevents many Black women from getting the assistance we require, because either the healthcare "professionals" have inherent biases that they let affect how they treat and talk to us, or they'll say we don't even need help, because we're supposed to be stronger, mentally and physically.
I've been fortunate to have had counselors who treat me with respect and dignity, but I know that my experience is the exception, not the norm. I've considered becoming a social worker or psychologist/therapist in the past, but I don't think I can handle the emotional stress that comes with it, despite being a very empathetic and compassionate person who actively listens to others who are going through difficult situations.
Thank you so much for being here with us, A. Any last words?
The most important thing I've learned and that I want other people to know is that you do not have to suffer alone and in silence.
Your life is important and you matter,
no matter what you've previously used as coping mechanisms, or how many people do not support you or have let you down.
Your voice, opinions, thoughts, and feelings are just as profound and needed as anyone else's.
No matter where you are in your current battle or struggle, you are valid.
Thank you again, A.
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