Content warning: Suicide
Mental illness, regardless of how hard my friend fought back, made her feel like she wasn’t in the driver’s seat of her own mind. She described depression as a creeping disease that caused her to isolate herself and shut down. She told me that her anxiety made her feel worse about not wishing it away and created panic that manifested itself as insomnia, heart palpitations or tremors. All I wanted to do was try to find a way to help her.
Initially, it was very hard for my friend to recognize mental illness in herself. During her freshman year, when she lay in bed day after day, she was met with, “What are you, Sleeping Beauty?” Without the right set of people for support, she became consumed by the belief that she was weaker than those who had better mental health. Her friends at the time had failed to support her when she needed it, and she failed to recognize that her struggles and trauma were valid. I couldn’t comprehend why she was left to deal with this all by herself.
She stopped coming to class at some point during her sophomore year, and it wasn’t until then that her friends and I told her that her constant state of unhappiness was not the norm. It wasn’t until we talked to her that she realized that the symptoms of anxiety and depression might manifest in her, but that was not who she was. Despite receiving an overwhelming message to the contrary, sometimes even from people she trusted, she began to believe that she could work through her mental health issues.
As we started to discuss her struggles, she told me I was the first person who didn’t normalize what she was going through. It helped me understand how extremely disheartening it is to someone with mental illness to have their struggles diminished with the argument that everyone has “bad days.”
While suffering from anxiety disorder and/or depression, my friend can often be in unnaturally long states of numbness and/or panic enclosed by trauma, and her ability to function was gone at times. Such instances were not a reflection of her strength or capacity, but rather an indication of how far her illness has progressed. After some persuasion from friends, she finally decided that it was time to get help, just as she would for any other illness so that she could heal and get better without feeling shame.
Her initial argument against getting help broke my heart. “Kavya, I don’t think my parents will love me,” she started sobbing one day. She brought up how being anxious and depressed was considered unacceptable in her community. This made me realize how discouraging it is when an individual’s community will not acknowledge the existence of mental health issues. As an Asian American, I am aware of the stigma surrounding mental illness in Asian American communities, especially among first- or second-generation Americans. Mental illness often has no space in the visualization of the American dream, and my friend had her struggles deemed void by dismissive comments. Members of my community have reiterated that mental illness is not valid because those members had gotten through “harsher” situations and remained resilient in their mental health.
But even within the UC Berkeley community, we often perpetuate the idea that someone can just help themselves out of the extremes of mental illness. People often think that those who are mentally ill are somehow weaker than those who don’t suffer from mental health issues, just like my friend’s mates from freshman year. I believe that the UC Berkeley community needs to do a better job of supporting students who are struggling with these issues and getting them the help they need. Although it might be helpful to someone in a different situation, it is not appropriate to shame a mentally ill student by invalidating their struggles.
The shaming of students, lack of support and presence of stigma on campus pushed my friend to refuse help especially when she desperately needed it. Self-help is a crucial part of recovery, but so is receiving professional help and community support. It became a toxic cycle for her until my friends and I stepped in. This cycle led to very dark places, and just like any other dangerous, untreated illness, it led to serious consequences — in this case, her becoming extremely suicidal. For her, refusing to get help worsened her mental illness, which only caused her to need professional help even more.
If you are struggling with these issues, I believe that it is my responsibility to let you know that your struggles are legitimate and that you are strong and worthy of help. I want you to know that despite the potential backlash from various communities and stigmas surrounding what you are experiencing, you deserve to be happy, and you are not weak for getting the help you deserve. I feel that it is my responsibility to let those who are in a dark place, including other Asian Americans, know that they are valid.
If you feel like you need to hurt yourself, please use the urgent drop-in services provided by CAPS (counseling and psychological services) at the Tang Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and/or call the after-hours crisis hotline, also provided by CAPS, outside of those times. If you feel like you are having suicidal thoughts, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You matter, and you deserve to live. You are valid.