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Making Anxiety, Depression, and Self-Harm Past-Tense

Part I: How Yamini Rajan overcame barriers to seek help.

Key points

  • Immigrants, especially youth, can experience serious challenges to their emotional stability.
  • Having a counselor to mediate a difficult conversation with parents can be life-saving.
ASHA International
Yamini Rajan
Source: ASHA International

ML: Yamini, you began to experience anxiety, depression, and self-harm pretty young. What were the barriers to seeking help?

YR: I lived in India until I was 12; I didn’t know there was help. It’s not something that’s really talked about. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to feel that way. I just thought it was normal for a long time. Things built up to a breaking point. We moved to the US, and my mom was diagnosed with cancer about three months after. It was difficult being so young and halfway across the world and trying to figure out how to fit into a new school, who were going to be my friends. There were new teachers and an entirely new culture that I tried to navigate. My parents weren’t able to be as present as they would have liked because they had to focus on my mom's health. I was very lonely, angry, and sad all at the same time. I didn’t want to say anything because the move wasn’t just tough on me; it was tough for my little sister who started at a new elementary school. My father started work. My parents were in their 40s; it’s not easy for anyone.

What if I did speak up and no one understood? What if I was told I was being too sensitive? In my head, I thought: ‘My mom has cancer; I just feel sad. How can I go to her and say: Hey I know you are going through something right now, but I need help?’ It didn’t feel important. I didn’t think anyone else would think it was real. I think a lot of immigrants go through that struggle of finally arriving here and not wanting to do anything to mess it up. They don’t want to rock the boat. They just want smooth sailing, to make it, and be successful. I didn’t know that therapy or medication or any of those things were options. My only experience with mental health was with the media. That wasn’t a picture that I identified with. I didn’t want to be a stereotype. These problem kids, juvenile delinquents with severe mental health issues acting crazy, and it’s really not true for the majority, but I didn’t learn that until much later.

ML: How did you determine who you were going to open up to about the thoughts and feelings that were destroying your quality of life? At what point did you say that your pain needed to be addressed?

Not Being Able to Handle Big Feelings Alone Isn't a Mark of Failure

YR: I didn’t actually tell anyone what I was going through until after my suicide attempt when I was 12. My best friend in middle school also had severe mental health issues, and we bonded over that. Neither of us could talk to our parents; we talked to each other. It was scary: Two 12-year-old girls dealing with a lot of big feelings, trying to counsel each other. It could have gone horribly, looking back on it now that I’m 21. The conversations we were having were really scary. We engaged in some unhealthy coping mechanisms like skipping class and taking drugs, and hanging out with people who were a lot older than us who didn’t necessarily have the best intentions. It wasn’t until after my suicide attempt that it became a lot more than I could handle, but I still couldn’t tell my parents, because they’d be so disappointed in me. I felt like such a failure because I couldn’t deal with it on my own. I didn’t know who to go to. I didn’t think talking to my parents was an option, not because I thought they’d get angry, but more because I didn’t want to cause them anymore hurt. My mom had just gone into remission. It was supposed to be a happy time. I didn’t want to be another crisis. I was looking around and I didn’t have that many adults in my life at that time who I trusted. I was getting closer to my school counselor, Mr. Everson. My friend suggested I talk to him. I used to go with her and be on the sidelines, but I’d seen the way he never made her feel judged. That’s what I was looking for. I didn’t want anyone to judge me. I went to Mr. Everson and he asked me how long I’d been dealing with it. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me that.

Once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t being questioned or interrogated. He did say he had to tell my parents. I said OK, but I didn’t want to be in the room when he told them. I’m grateful he facilitated that conversation and I’m sure my parents would say the same. I think we needed a moderator there. As new as it was for me, it was new for them. In the same way, I didn’t know anything about mental health awareness. What is depression, what is anxiety, can 12 year-olds have that? My parents didn’t know either. They also had a huge cultural barrier to mental health education. They didn’t know about it or that they had to teach us about it. Mr. Everson helped us understand what was going on and how to keep going. He connected my parents to my therapist. It took a lot of thought of who I was going to talk to. I’m glad about the decision I made and I’m glad I didn’t go to my parents first.

Check back for Part II when Yamini discusses identifying and overcoming her painful thoughts and feelings and the changes she's made from then until now.

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