4 BIPOC Therapists and Advocates Share How to Reverse Mental Health Stigmas in Minority Communities
As someone who grew up in a predominantly minority community, I remember when I was younger and thinking therapy was only something rich, white people or those with severe mental illnesses did. But then I got into college and was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and learned that everyone should be taking care of their minds just as much, if not more so, than their physical health. The only problem was, no one in my family spoke about mental health. Growing up, whenever I brought it up to my friends or family, it either seemed to be associated with negative labels like "crazy" or "weak," or avoided altogether as if I was talking about something inappropriate or weird.
As I got older, I started doing research and talking to other BIPOC who were willing to share their experiences with me, and I realized I wasn't alone. Studies have even shown that mental illness stigma is higher among ethnic minorities than majorities. But why?
To figure it out, I spoke with other BIPOC women who are mental health advocates and professionals to learn about their similar experiences and how they're working to reverse mental health stigma in their communities.
Here, we took a deep dive into their journeys with mental health, where the cause of stigmatization in their communities comes from, and what they're doing to change the conversation. Each of them also shares a beautiful message that they want communities of color to know about mental health and inform on how we all can do our part in reversing these stigmas.
Sahaj Kaur-Mental Health Therapist-in-Training and Founder of @BrownGirlTherapy
If you aren't familiar with the Instagram account @BrownGirlTherapy, it was founded by Sahaj Kaur in 2019. She started the account as a way to seek community and connection with other South Asian women and children of immigrants. Since its beginning, it has garnered a following of 175,000 people and it continues to grow. Kaur explains that the lack of communication surrounding mental health growing up within her family inspired her to create the online community to act as a resource for others with similar experiences.
"Mental health in my community and family weren't really discussed. Often, we were encouraged to hide the bad things, save face, and figure things out without external help," says Kaur. "I spent so much of my life paralyzed by social perception and gratitude shame, and this idea that if my needs were different than my siblings or I was struggling, I would seem less grateful to my immigrant parents." says Kaur.
Kaur says her family's way of processing negative emotions by hiding them was due to the lack of access and understanding of mental health in general. "When I went through a personally traumatic experience in my early 20s, I navigated the world of therapy mostly alone," she explains. "My parents feared that they failed me because I was looking to an external source for help, and of course, they didn't fail me, but their understanding of what it meant to be a parent and what it meant to struggle or need help was generationally and culturally different from my understanding of those things."
When we asked Kaur about how she's trying to shift this cultural perspective within her family, she says it was important for her to be vocal and transparent about her feelings and mental state. "I have normalized therapy in my own family by bringing it into everyday conversations and making it a priority," she says. "I don't naturally shy away from hard conversations, conflict resolution, or mental health issues." Which is why she shares informational posts on her Instagram, such as explaining the mental health challenges that come with being a child of immigrant parents, tips for how to get the most out of therapy, and so much more. "Through this work, I have been able to create and curate resources for children of immigrants to access care, to reflect on their own stories and identities, and to democratize mental health research, so it applies to lived experiences," she says.
Kaur also aims to raise awareness and education in the mental health industry on cultural and intersectional issues through her professional work. As a mental health therapist-in-training, she wants to be a resource and supportive figure for people within her community to feel less alone and validated in their experiences.
Celeste Viciere-Therapist and Founder of @CelesteTheTherapist
Celeste Viciere is a Black therapist who started out in the mental health field nearly 20 years ago. She discovered her passion for mental health after getting a job at a homeless shelter. "I started talking to people at the homeless shelter and they would thank me for listening," she says. "I decided then that I would go into the mental health field because listening to people came so naturally for me." However, her own personal journey with mental health began after she realized she was masking a lot of her internal pain that she was experiencing due to work and school. "I found myself realizing I was not really happy and I was smiling outside, but crying inside," she explains.
Viciere says she never fully understood her emotions and mental health because she never "knew mental health was connected the same way physical health is connected to us." "I also thought therapy was for white people," she adds. This is because there was a lack of mental health resources and emphasis on religion within her community growing up. "It was stigmatized in my community because no one learned how to identify emotions and talk about what they were going through," she says. "And whenever there was a concern, it was common to be told to pray about it, which didn't fully acknowledge the problem."
She also feels that America's value on hustle culture plays a huge role in how her community and other people choose to handle their mental health (or lack thereof). When people choose to focus on external success and "climbing the ladder" rather than taking note of how they feel, it can be harmful, she explains. These realizations about society and the stigmatization of mental health in her community are what later pushed her into mental health advocacy.
"I talk about mental health the way people talk about going out to eat," she says. "I started a social media account called @CelesteTheTherapist and started talking to people about mental health while working in the emergency room during young adulthood." She says her time working in the hospital made her notice that patients who looked like her did not understand the fundamentals of mental health. "I want people to understand that it is possible to live and not just survive." That's why on her Instagram account and podcast she openly discusses topics like self-awareness, stress, healing your inner child, and shares encouraging advice on how to love and support yourself throughout your mental health journey.
Dr. Therese Mascardo-Clinical Psychologist and Founder of @Exploring.Therapy
Dr. Therese Mascardo, a Filipina-American clinical psychologist, has similar experiences of mental health being stigmatized within her family. "Growing up in a Filipino household, mental health was spoken about with secrecy and often shame, if it was mentioned at all," she says. "No one I knew went to therapy (or shared about it if they did), and mental health struggles were considered a sign of weakness that should be dealt with behind closed doors."
Because she was never taught about mental health due to her family's lack of understanding and acknowledgment, it was hard for Dr. Mascardo to know how to manage her anxiety and depression growing up. "As a first-generation child of immigrants, I was taught to prioritize hard work, education, and career status as markers of success," she says.
Religion was also seen as a way to remedy mental health issues in her family. "Because Filipinos are often devout Roman Catholics, prayer is often considered the primary or only acceptable solution for mental anguish," she says.
However, growing up in this family dynamic is part of the reason why she went on to start her Instagram page, @Exploring.Therapy, which now has over 21,000 followers since its inception in 2018. "I created the account to help raise mental health awareness and to highlight the more human, non-clinical side of therapy," she says. "I felt compelled to show people that pursuing mental fitness is important and life-changing." On her account, she shares everything from positive affirmations, mental health listicles, and more of the things she's learned as a psychologist throughout her life and travels.
Dr. Mascardo also made it a point to speak out against the rise of hate crimes toward Asian-Americans that occurred in 2020 after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, even though she initially felt unqualified to do so earlier in her career. "I was pretty reluctant to talk about mental health issues impacting the AAPI community," she explains. However, as the rise of these attacks against her community increased, she quickly realized the dangers of not speaking out. "I've realized that my silence was harmful," she says. "I'm always going to be imperfect, and I'm always going to be learning and growing, but I want to share whatever I can if it helps others."
Recently, though, Dr. Mascardo was invited to speak at the Philippine Embassy in Portugal about mental health habits in a virtual event for International Women's Month. "It felt really good to know that in a small way, I was doing something to help break down mental health stigma in the Filipino community," she says.
Brandie Carlos-Founder of @TherapyForLatinx
"Growing up, I remember having a really hard time with my family understanding my mental health struggles," says Brandie Carlos, mental health advocate and founder of the Instagram account and website @TherapyForLatinx. It's an online platform for marginalized communities to share information on mental health.
A big part of the mental health stigma in Carlos' family came from her being born in the United States, she says. Her family did not fully understand that even though her life was more privileged than her undocumented family and she didn't live in fear of being detained or deported, she could still struggle with depression. "I would often hear things like it was because I didn't pray, or was ungrateful and spoiled since I was born in the United States and had access to things some of my family didn't," she says.
She reveals that she thought about going to therapy for years as a young teenager, despite her grandmother's advice to just "deal with it," but never felt like she had the resources, support, or insight on where to start. That, coupled with her family's lack of understanding and the loss of one of her best friends to suicide, led her to speak out against the stigmatization of mental health and start Therapy for Latinx in 2018. "I knew I needed support to navigate the loss of my friend, but finding resources was really tough and that's how Therapy for Latinx was born." On the Instagram account and website, you'll find a range of valuable information such as how to find a therapist, resources for those who want to become licensed mental health practitioners, and even a community who wants to share their mental health stories in a safe space.
"When I started the account, I had no idea how big the need would be in our communities," she says of her account with 73,000 followers. "There isn't a day that I don't receive a request for a therapist or a DM asking for support in finding resources."
With the help of her Instagram account and through consistent and open conversations about her depression, Carlos has created a more accepting and understanding environment in her own home with her grandma. "Now, my grandmother encourages me to go to therapy and understands if I'm having a bad mental health day," she explains.
How you can start reversing mental health stigmas right now:
After speaking with these strong women and learning about how they have helped change conversations surrounding mental health, we asked them about how all of us can do the same in our families and communities. Here's what they had to say:
- Stop mental health stigma when it takes place. Be vocal when you see people speaking negatively about someone whose mental health is suffering.
- Talk about mental health the way you talk about physical health-openly and without shame.
- If you've had positive, helpful experiences in therapy, be vocal about it.
- Applaud people when they do what they need to care for themselves, like going to therapy or taking medication.
- Ask people how they are doing. Then, ask them how they are really doing.
- Be open and honest when people ask how you are doing as a way to model authenticity and vulnerability.
- Watch movies and TV with people in your family/community with mental health storylines.
- Model self-care and encourage others to do the same-especially if you are older or are in a position of power.
- Build your language around feelings and emotions so you can communicate your experiences and struggles more effectively, and so you can help others name their feelings and experiences, too.
- When you hear others talking about mental health in a negative way, say something that reminds them mental health isn't something that should be taken lightly or made fun of.
- When you meet someone who may be struggling with their mental health, remember that they have a back story, so give them grace and be patient when learning about them.
- If you have access to therapy, go. People often don't realize that something doesn't have to be "wrong" to go to therapy. Go to learn how to communicate better, or to gain support with making a big life decision. These tools and knowledge are things we can then carry into our lives and relationships.