Mental Health: A New Language For Me & My Immigrant-American Family

By Michelle DeOcampo (former MHANYS staff)

I’m Filipino-American, and I rarely hear open – yet alone positive – discussions about mental health in my community. While growing up, I not only learned stigmatized ideas about mental health from my American classmates, but I also absorbed the stigmatized beliefs that my immigrant parents, titas and titos (elders) learned in their home country. Ultimately, that kind of messaging led to negative impacts in my own mental health. From conversations with other second-generation immigrants, I know that I’m not alone in this experience.

We face double the stigma – that’s why it’s so important to be intentional about destigmatizing mental health in immigrant communities. I recently became intentional about addressing mental health stigma with my own family. Although it is a challenging process, I’ve noticed our initially stigmatized conversations slowly transforming into positive ones. Here are some approaches I’ve found helpful in starting that process…

Ask why someone has certain stigmatized beliefs about mental health, or are hesitant to seek mental health help. Often times, the reason is based in misinformation, which can be corrected. Some immigrants have negative perceptions of mental health and people with mental illness because of the mental health systems, or lack thereof, of their home countries. The term “mental illness” may evoke imagery of forced hospitalization, education/job discrimination, homelessness, or even imprisonment.

While mental health stigma is a persisting problem in the US, it’s important to recognize that we do have policies, practices, and resources in place to prevent such injustices against people with mental illness. I often find myself reminding others about this. For example, I often hear people express fear about going to a doctor for mental health concerns because a mental health diagnosis may affect their school or job prospects. I use this as an opportunity to teach them that according to the national HIPAA law, health information is confidential and cannot be shared with a school or employer without your permission. You can find other myth-busting talking points on MHANYS’ Myths & Facts page.

Connect it to your values. I’ve often tried to speak positively about mental health, only to have my ideas dismissed as being “too American” or “too Western.” When that’s the case, I try to connect it to my community/family’s way of thinking.

For example, my family values hard work and self-sacrifice for the sake of helping our loved ones. Knowing this, I recognized that the personal responsibility aspect of mental health appeals to our values. So, I frame working on personal mental health as a priority in order to benefit our collective family. If we want to be able to thrive in school and work to be able to take care of our family, we firstly need to self-care so our minds and bodies are well enough to do so.

Model positive mental health language. When I find myself having difficulty practicing what I preach, what often brings me back to prioritizing my wellness is remembering that I’m a role model – especially for my adings (younger sibling and cousins). I’ve learned to recognize the influence I hold in simply through my everyday language, and I’ve utilized this to make healthy, positive discussions about mental health the norm. To help my family, I’ve become intentional about…

  • Talking openly about mental health, using empathic & destigmatizing language.
  • Being open about getting mental health support – both from inside and outside of the community.
  • Using self-compassionate language, and encouraging others to do the same.

It’s not easy to change long-held beliefs of a community, even when you’re well equipped with knowledge and good intentions. But there is power in language and dialogue. With regular positive messaging about mental health, stigmatized ideas can gradually become unlearned, and replaced by supportive dialogues, strengthened relationships, and healthy habits.