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The Anxiety I Can’t Express
Mental health talk has been taboo among Latinx people for too long
My anxiety is basically this: scared when my husband goes to work, apprehensive to read the morning news, distressed and angered by White people who constantly question my place of birth and feeling hopeless over the handling of asylum seekers. Anxiety looms, but I have no other choice but to keep going. While this issue for Latinx people can vary between the undocumented and documented, it is still there, persistent and constant.
I’ve had two major anxiety attacks. The first (senior year of college) was a sheer panic that I experienced at a movie theater. I had no idea what was happening to me. The second attack came when I was in my 20s, and that felt completely different. I felt a sharp sensation of vertigo that prevented me from once again being in an enclosed space. That last attack drove me to see a therapist for the first time. After years of talking things out, it became clear that I, and all of my siblings, suffer from deep anxiety related to fear of abandonment.
My parents did do a lot for us. They worked damn hard their entire lives, whether by cleaning up after people or working in a factory. But all of that work led to neglectfulness, and we were the result of that.
Speaking with a therapist about my anxiety and speaking to my parents about my mental health issues are two different things. The notion of paying to talk to someone about your feelings is absurd to the majority of older Latinx people. Mental health isn’t a priority to them and certainly not something you discuss openly — let alone to a stranger. To them, even going to a regular doctor for serious reasons is a last resort.
If I were to express that vulnerability to my parents, it would most likely lead to an “after all we’ve done for you” sort of argument, or hurt feelings. Maybe both. And my parents did do a lot for us. They worked damn hard their entire lives, whether by picking fruit and vegetables in the fields, cleaning up after people, taking care of kids, or working in a factory. But all of that work led to neglectfulness, and we were the result of that.
When my parents first moved to the U.S. in the ’60s, they couldn’t afford to bring my three older siblings, because they didn’t have proper documentation. Initially, my father came to the U.S, got a job, and saved money before going back for my mom and their kids. For about a year, my older sister and two older brothers were without parents and were looked after by my aunt. They were quite little at that time, and I’m sure they still harbor some resentment because of that.
Children of immigrants suffer from deeper mental health issues than the rest of the population. The discrepancies result from our socioeconomic background, cultural identity, familial stresses, immigration, racial divide, language barriers, and a myriad of other issues. These concerns fall under what is known as transgenerational trauma. I first learned about it after my sister, a mental health specialist, volunteered to help undocumented people at the border. The term refers to trauma that is transferred from one generation of survivors to the next and further generations of their offspring.
The University of California, Berkeley tracked the mental health of U.S.-born children of Mexican and Central American immigrants in California before and after the 2016 presidential election and the results showed an increase in anxiety and sleep deprivation due to worries about immigration policies.
Therapist Alix Foisy says that, in her years as a mental health provider, her Latinx patients have expressed various issues drawn from Latinx culture. For example, Foisy said her Latinx patients deal with problems that are more group-focused rather than individual-focused, meaning their stresses tend to surround their families and not just themselves. Some of her patients were advised by their family to seek prayer or be more involved with their church rather than speak to a therapist. She also said the issue of immigration came up a lot.
We shouldn’t suffer with this behind closed doors while putting work and family above our health.
“Some of them still have family back in their country of origin, or where their parents are from,” she says. “There’s just a kind of disconnect there, of support, of understanding. They have to ride this line of ‘where do I belong?’ There’s also issues of language, cultural understanding, and generational understanding.”
“What we’re also coming to understand is that even for youth and families who are not directly threatened by these deportation or family separation policies, the policy climate is creating a more hostile and unsafe environment,” Laura Wray-Lake, a UCLA associate professor who has studied how Latinx teens react to immigration policies under the Trump administration, said in 2018 HuffPost article.
However, there’s a remarkable, substantial shift happening between Latinx generational groups. While on the one hand, there’s an enormous uncertainty for our people especially under the Trump administration, which can be the root of grave mental health issues, there’s also a newfound unity and openness about mental health concerns along with fervent support for our community.
With more Latinx people opening up about their struggles with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts — including, recently, Gina Rodriguez — it’s a testament that we shouldn’t suffer with this behind closed doors while putting work and family above our health. It’s okay to be vulnerable and honest because it’s only then that we’ll be able to grow and get stronger.
It’s so encouraging to see young Latinxs seeking out mental health professionals and beginning a fruitful dialogue with their families, myself included. My parents know very well about my struggles, and they are now opening up to me about theirs. My mother, now at retirement age, is finally taking those first steps into therapy — and while I know it’ll be a hard road for her, it’s definitely one worth taking.