Students' Corner

One student's contribution about intergenerational conversations regarding mental health within Asian-American families.

Personal Reflection: Disclosing Mental Health Issues to Family

My Linh Vo
Doctoral student in Clinical Psychology
John F. Kennedy University
Pleasant Hill, CA

About four years ago, I first told my dad I had cyclothymia, a mood disorder characterized by alternating periods of feeling happier and sadder than my typical temperament. The conversation lasted for about ten minutes and ended with me in tears and my dad looking dazed and confused. His words of "no such thing existed in our family" stung me like a thousand paper cuts on the tip of my fingers. In a separate conversation, my mom cried and said I should stop having depressive thoughts because it made her sad. Occasionally, I would try to continue the conversation, but my parents would quickly change the topic. In my darkest moments, I wished I did not exist. I felt ostracized, very alone and misunderstood. 

Man behind screenCurrently, my parents do not fully understand what cyclothymia is or how it affects me. I myself question whether I had or have cyclothymia. However, our conversations are much longer and better now. I think one of the biggest factors at play is the manner in which I talk about my problems to them. In discussing with them about mental health, I had to consider our differences in acculturation levels, cultural backgrounds (they were raised in Vietnam while I was raised here), family roles and dynamics, worldviews, and the degree of knowledge regarding mental health.

In one instance, I drew parallels between cyclothymia and diabetes in a talk with my mom. I reasoned that like diabetes, cyclothymia may be influenced by genetic factors, social and environmental stressors, or other medical and mental health illnesses. A person with diabetes can manage his or her condition through healthy lifestyle choices and with medications. Similarly, a person with cyclothymia, or other mental health disorders, may benefit from therapy, medications or a combination of both. Some people may not need any services in managing their condition or only need the services from time to time. In this conversation, my mom was receptive to what I had to say. She even suggested that I get more sleep and exercise to enhance my well-being. 

Drawing from my experiences, I would like to share these thoughts: 

1. To the Parents

Remember how you took care of us when we were sick or hurt? These were the times when we were vulnerable and needed you most. Like you, we did not want this to happen to us. Like you, we felt powerless, confused, and scared by the diagnoses and what was to come from them. Like you, we do not want to bring shame to the family name. And, as your kids, we need your love and support, want you to be proud of who we are and who we will become, and hope you have faith in our bright futures. 

2. To Those With Mental Health Problems

Don't give up on trying to find your sources of support and comfort. They may come from family and extended family members, friends, teachers, service providers or even strangers. If you cannot talk about your experiences, find other outlets such as creative writing or art to express them and to receive validation. Also, know that you are not alone. More and more people are publicly sharing their personal stories about having mental health disorders. For instance, Dr. Kay Jamison, a psychiatrist, wrote "An Unquiet Mind" discussing her experiences with bipolar disorder. Lastly, remember that you have the diagnosis, it does not have you.