Nearly everyone who lives with mental illness has encountered barriers in their recovery journeys. For me, many of these barriers were cultural: I faced social, linguistic, religious and even political challenges as I grew up and attempted to seek treatment and support for my mental health.
Being a gay, Latina woman who grew up in a religious household of immigrants, I had to overcome many obstacles in order to get the help that I needed.
Cultural Messages Silenced My Mental Health Concerns
I began to experience symptoms of mental illness when I was in middle school. I recall feeling an unrelenting sadness, unworthiness and emptiness. A part of me knew this was not normal, but I never spoke up.
In my household, we did not share our feelings. We all lived with the understanding that if people were sad or anxious, they would simply “live through it,” because that was life. Early on, my parents instilled in me the belief that God gave us life and others “had it worse” than we did, so we had no reason to complain.
I did not question this notion, and I felt selfish for wanting help and relief from my pain. However, I noticed that family members seemed to cope with their struggles by drinking alcohol (perhaps to numb themselves to pain), so I knew I wasn’t the only one who was feeling this way.
The Need to Survive Took Priority Over My Feelings
Beyond cultural values surrounding faith and resilience, my family simply did not have time to prioritize our mental health. We were immigrants in this country, and our immediate survival took priority over dwelling on our feelings. My family needed to focus on working so that they could provide a roof over our heads and put food on the table — all while trying their best to change our immigration status.
I needed to focus on earning straight As in school, as academic achievement was the only way I would be able to obtain a college education in the future. I also needed to focus on helping my family assimilate to an unfamiliar country, often interpreting for them and filling out paperwork they did not understand.
Ultimately, I knew we were all going through so much, and I did not want to burden my family with my issues. So, to cope with my feelings, I began self-harming and self-medicating.
I Had Difficulty Finding Effective Therapy
It was not until I was a freshman in high school that I attended therapy. At age 16, I fell in love with my best friend, and I came out to my family as bisexual. Because of my family’s conservative cultural upbringings and religious beliefs, my parents had adopted homophobic ideas and believed that queer sexual orientations were “going against God’s plan.” They believed that therapy would help me move past this “phase” and change me back to “normal.”
Despite attending therapy for my family’s misguided agenda, I used the experience to focus on my mental health, since I knew I was not sick for being in love with another woman. I even tried involving my family in my therapy sessions, but we ran into significant language barriers.
During sessions, I would have to translate for both my therapist and my family, so I never felt that the conversations were effective. Rather than my therapist acting as the bridge between my family and I, I was left to navigate the divide and explain myself in two languages.
Ultimately, I did not feel that my therapist could offer an unbiased perspective, and I did not feel understood or advocated for. As a result, I did not have much hope for my recovery.
My Immigration Status Presented Compounding Challenges
On top of encountering these already-significant barriers to effective care, I faced a serious political and financial barrier: I did not have insurance because of my undocumented status. I would attend therapy only once a month because I could not afford regular sessions. This meant that my treatment was not always active, and I had to cope on my own. I tried to take away as much as I could from each therapy session because I never knew if I would return.
Additionally, I did not have access to prescribing doctors and medication — which, in retrospect, I needed for symptom management. I tried applying multiple times for health insurance, and I would get rejected consistently, even as a resident. I lived in this uncertain cycle for several years before I was finally able to get insurance.
Once insured, I began to attend therapy more frequently and started a medication regimen. These changes have made a profound difference in my health.
Now, I’m Making the Cultural Changes I Wanted to See
Having faced what I did, I am very grateful to be where I am today. I have been attending therapy for years, and I take medication regularly. I am in a better place than I was in my childhood, and I’m proud to share my story. I advocate for myself and others while trying to make broader changes in my community.
I’ve even begun pushing my family and others to break the toxic cycles that were born from generational traumas and cultural myths. With the help of NAMI and NAMI NJ en Español, I have been able to better communicate with my family. They have taken NAMI’s Family-to-Family course and educated themselves on mental health.
Although they still struggle to understand my conditions, they have become more supportive. They have been there with me through the ups and downs, and they have learned to accept that I am choosing to recover in the ways that work for me — even if those ways may be different from their desired approach. Witnessing and facilitating this progress has contributed significantly to my mental health recovery.
They are learning from their mistakes and slowly letting go of stigma — that seeking help is not for the weak; rather, it is for the brave.
Roselin F. Dueñas Cherres joined NAMI NJ as an intern in 2020 and now serves as NAMI NJ’s Affiliate Liaison. She has worked closely with the many programs NAMI has to offer, including NAMI NJ en Español, where she worked as a program assistant, and NAMI In Our Own Voice, where she participated as a presenter. She also facilitates NAMI LGBTQIA+ Connection Support Groups. Roselin hopes to use her intersectionality as a first-generation Latina, gay woman who is on a mental health recovering journey to inspire and support others on their path to recovery, hope and prosperity.