"Did you wake up feeling sad today? You're not alone."
Kehlani got me thinking about my own family. My grandmother on my mother’s side committed suicide a few years before I was born. I heard she was wonderful woman and a nurturing mother. I will never know why she so sad, but I can speculate through observation. Here was an immigrant woman who had to flee her country due to war. She leaves her immediate family behind to start over in a strange country where she couldn’t speak the language or land anything more than a low-wage labor job. She’s alone with one husband, an abrasive mother-in-law, and eight young children to look after. She was the family anchor, but who was anchoring her? It’s an all too common story shared particularly among Southeast Asian American immigrant families.
So how do we get this conversation rolling?
Here’s an excerpt from a recent Washington Post article on Asian American mental health that I found really informative: “According to 2007 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, female Asian Americans ages 15 to 24 were second only to Native Americans in their rate of suicide deaths. A study in 2005 found that Asian American college students are more likely to seriously consider suicide than their white peers.”
Far too often this issue is not even discussed in our own communities. I would have loved to have been there for my grandmother to assure her that there is someone who was willing to hear her out and make sure her feelings were not just a figment of her imagination. The best way, in my honest opinion, to respect someone and their feelings is not to bluntly tell them to “tough it out” or “suck it up”, but to validate them by listening.
I’ll make this quick: I hate respectability politics and ableist attitudes. Just because we haven’t seen or experienced the ill-effects of mental health ourselves doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. By sweeping it under the rug and invalidating the very real experiences of other human beings, we are denying them a right, a resource, and an outlet to heal. We are making it ten times worse than it needs to be. Just take a step back and take our own personal biases and viewpoints out of the equation for a second, because it doesn’t take much to lend a helping hand. Sometimes it can as simple as asking another person, “How are you doing today?”
I have come to understand the effects of mental health on a more intimate level this year as well. It’s funny that I had a conversation with a friend recently about “generational trauma” and how it affects children of war refugees. Experts say it could take up to three generations for that sort of trauma to evaporate from the gene pool. I have no idea whether or not I’m affected by it, but I do feel like something’s not right from time to time. When I stopped traveling and finished filming my documentary series this summer, I had a huge rush of emotions that seemingly came out of nowhere. It was difficult to explain to others my overwhelming feeling of emptiness. My moods kept swinging back and forth like a pendulum, and I often wanted to be left alone. What helped me cope with these feelings were the awareness and the ability to openly express them. I wrote, I spoke, I conversed, I created, and I did whatever it took to alleviate the weight that I was carrying on my consciousness. That’s me coming from a privileged standpoint where I had the choice and options to seek help. Plus, it was relatively mild in comparison to most cases. There are far too many people that I know who are hurting and are feeling hopeless, and they have no one to turn to.
We owe it to our friends and family to not let it get to that point.
Most of the time, people aren’t even looking for answers or advice, they just need someone to care enough to show up and show support. I just want those people to know that it’s okay to not feel okay here and there. We often are quick to judge or to shame others for not “snapping out of it”, but the truth is these battles with inner turmoil, depression, and suicide are complex and could potentially be lifelong wars. We will never know what it’s like to be in someone else’s head until we drop our knee-jerk needs to police their emotions.
Let them feel and let them be heard.
Don’t listen to respond. Listen to understand.