I Made My Mental Health A Collective Experience

Written by Yasmeen Yahya

At 19, I went to therapy for the first time after an anxiety attack I had at a concert the week prior. I knew I had gone without professional help for a long time. At that initial appointment, I was asked many questions about my own history and habits.

“How have you been adjusting to college?”

“Do you have a support system in place?”

“How many days out of the week do you exercise?”

And finally, “do you have a history of mental illness in your family?” I nearly laughed. In fact, I scoffed.

No one has ever even mentioned mental illness in my family unless they were referring to “crazy” people. Others. Loony, unhinged people who cause their own suffering, and probably do drugs. There is no such thing as depression, only being sad. And when you’re sad, you get over it because there are more important issues to deal with. Similarly, “anxiety” was not part of our household vocabulary. Thus, discussing mental health was never a dinner table topic, to say the least.

At 16 years old, I discovered the term, “general anxiety disorder” or, a “...persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. People with GAD… find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern” (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Upon reading this, I sighed with relief. My body relaxed for the first time in years. I took a deep breath. This discovery was validation in something I have felt for as long as I could remember, but never had any words to describe it. That validation made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that there were others who felt what I felt.

Although my discovery of GAD was empowering, that feeling didn’t last. I have had many moments where I felt defeated talking about mental illness with family and friends alike. I have been told nearly every variation of, “well, everyone gets nervous sometimes.” That invalidation always hits harder than I would like to admit.

Three years later, I received a diagnosis at 19 for chronic anxiety and depression. Still, my diagnosis never changed the reality that some of the most important people in my life were not ready to talk about mental illness due to culture, their own insecurities, the lack of dialogue about mental illness in our country, or all of the above. In recent years, the public conversation has grown in many aspects, but we still have major strides to make in regards to destigmatizing mental illness, and most importantly, people with mental illness(es).

So, here is what I am doing to create a dialogue around mental health in my own life. Obviously, I am writing about it. By sharing my writing, I have a springboard from which to have conversations with my friends and family about what I am experiencing. In turn, these conversations allow for my friends and family to come forward about their own experiences with mental health, the good and the bad. I discovered that my family does actually have a history of mental illness, it simply went undiagnosed due to the stigma surrounding mental illness in my parents’ respective cultures. So, I am not the odd one out, the weak link. Similar to my dreadful astigmatism, my whimsical curly hair, and the exaggerated bridge of my nose, my mental illness is genetic.

The most important revelation I have made is that my mental health journey is not an individualistic experience. My mental health journey involves the people I love and who love me. It directly relates to my culture and my family. By going to therapy and talking about mental health on a public platform, I am taking others along for the ride.

The road has been turbulent at times, but conversations about mental health have brought me to a place I never thought I would be. My loved ones now understand that taking antidepressants are equally as important as eating right and exercising in terms of benefitting my health. In my case, they go hand-in-hand. I have open conversations with friends about what depression looks like for me and why anxiety debilitates me from doing what most people consider to be “normal.” By having these conversations, I feel freer because I don’t have to pretend to be what I am not. And I will continue to discuss mental health because I deserve to.

Yasmeen Yahya lives in Austin, Texas. She discusses mental health, culture, and identity here at Pass/Fail and at Pants Optional. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find Yasmeen organizing something, texting her therapist, or, in true Sagittarius nature, delving into her latest obsession. This month, it's interior design.

Chelsea Francis