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Let’s Talk Mental Health


So, mental health is an interesting thing. I grew up in the 90s when TV shows and movies openly mocked mental health professionals as “quacks” and “shrinks”, there was this sentiment that only the ‘crazy’ or ‘deeply disturbed “went to get help, or that there was something ‘seriously wrong’ with you. I don’t recall ever hearing anything negative about it in my family, but I also don’t recall ever hearing anything positive….or anything at all. Mental health wasn’t even a topic. 

Mom was strong. The strongest person I’ve ever known, both mentally (as far as I was aware) and physically. She worked 18 hour days and never complained. She was on her feet all day and evening or evening and night and was still a beacon of light, she rarely got sick and I don’t recall any personal/sick days she took until the last few months before she died. She is/was my example of strength and I strive endlessly to be like her but one of the pitfalls of her strength is that I rarely saw her take a day for herself, for her own wellbeing. That said, as an immigrant with With two kids and a mortgage and family to send money to back in the Philippines, I understand why she didn’t (or why she felt she couldn’t) do so.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that she and my father needed to hustle for us to survive, and I am incredibly grateful for their sacrifices and what they did for me. I’m just explaining why the idea of mental health wasn’t discussed in our household. It seemed like the idea of how one felt about oneself was secondary to the act of survival. Did she ever feel down? Was her smile ever a cover up of how she truly felt? I don’t know, and won’t ever know. To be honest, I hope it wasn’t, although the likelihood that it was at one point or another is pretty high. 

I was told to ‘be strong’

I spent my teens and 20s avoiding the question of mental health, despite losing my Mother at 16 I didn’t seek help nor was it recommended to me by anyone, I was told to ‘be strong’ especially for my sister, who is 6 years older than I am. My pain, my grief was unimportant, it seemed. My sister, who to others seemed more ‘fragile’, was to be taken care– as the male heir in the family, I was to show her strength, despite what I was going through, and like a good boy, I did. I buried the pain and grief I experienced and showed a ‘strong’ front, not knowing the damage it was causing me. 

As a boy in a Filipino family, there was an expectation of me to be ‘strong’, which meant not to show emotion. In my mind, this translated to: “whatever negative your feeling, that’s weakness”. This was reinforced with friends who, even now, suggest seeking help as ‘weak’ or ‘soft’, media and society wasn’t much help, either. I carried the pain and my grief and overall sadness and loneliness. I rarely brought it up to anyone, even my closest friends. Occasionally we’d have bubble tea talks about our feelings and I’d touch on how I felt and what I was going through, but even then I couldn’t explain it all. Most of the time, though, I spent nights sifting through the feelings on my own, asking my own questions, desperately trying to fix this sadness by myself, never even considering professional help. When the thought arose, the voices in my head echoed those in media and around me to ‘be strong’ and ‘you’re not crazy’.

This all changed when my son came along. Several months after he was born I was down. I felt useless and alone, despite my son, wife, Theresa, friends and family being there for me. The more I tried to get out, the more I felt this, so much so that even my façade of smiling through the pain wasn’t working anymore. Theresa noticed it and suggested I seek professional help. 

At first I was angry.

At first I was angry. “You think there’s something wrong with me? Do you think I’m THAT weak?” is what I thought, but deep down inside I was defeated. I was tired of feeling so down. I resisted, saying “I can figure it out myself” like I had learned to do my whole life, and then she asked the one question that changed my view of it:

“If your son felt the way you do right now, would you tell him NOT to get help?” 

Despite all the years of conditioning to feel like I shouldn’t seek help or support, to handle all things on my own, this question shook me deep inside. My answer was “no. HELL no”. I hated how I felt and I would never wish this on my son or any person, especially a child. Oddly enough, as I look back on it, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to feel the way I felt and would have suggested to seek support to someone I cared about, yet I wasn’t willing to do that for myself. It’s funny/sad how we often care about others much more than we do ourselves, isn’t it?

So I went, and I committed to being open and talking and taking advantage of the help that was being offered to me and it truly did help me. 

I’ve come to realize that getting help is not weak, it’s quite the opposite.

It takes strength to overcome all the conditioning and talk that has been planted deep inside you.

It takes strength to be willing to be open up to someone, and to be willing to seek help despite what others have tried to convince you. 

It takes strength to step out into something you’ve never tried or have been told was for ‘crazy’ people your whole life

It takes strength to take care of yourself

It takes strength to be an example of taking care of your mental health for your children

It takes strength to oppose what your culture or society deems weak

I think that the idea of seeking professional help is difficult for most people, but it’s especially hard for Filipinos. It’s been stated that Filipinos are amongst the lowest to seek professional help. Could this be cultural? We’re known to be strong, hard working people who never complain. Does that apply to our own mental health? Could it be that we ignore the difficulties we face? is it possible that our families, whether consciously or subconsciously, make it difficult for us to seek professional help when we need it? Has our deeply religious roots contributed to this? Being told to pray instead of getting support? To “trust in God” rather than going to a professional? 

There’s plenty of articles available (like this one: Cultural Mistrust and Mental Health Help-Seeking Attitudes Among Filipino Americans)  that discusses this in detail. I’m no expert, I’m just trying to learn.

Ultimately, though, I’ve learned this: There’s nothing weak about seeking medical attention, whether it’s from a doctor for a broken arm, a physiotherapist to rehab a leg or going to see a therapist to deal with the trauma that we experience in life, it takes strength to know when you need help, Filipino or not. 

– Kenners

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