In many Latinx families, we don’t usually acknowledge or discuss mental health with each other, as it often causes confusion and frustration. However, when the pandemic hit and everyone’s lives came tumbling down, most of the systems that people had in place fell apart, and they began exploring unfamiliar parts of themselves mentally and emotionally. During this time, social media apps like Tiktok and Instagram saw a surge in ADHD-centered content, bringing more light to the concept of neurodiversity.
After learning about it online, many people felt that they really identified with common symptoms of ADHD, and many were eventually diagnosed. Among them was Christina “Izzie” Chea, a music educator, business professional, and mother who was diagnosed at 35 years old. To promote education about neurodiversity and ADHD, she started an Instagram account called Izzie and ADHD to share her story and how she copes with her symptoms while also aiming to educate and help those who have been recently diagnosed. Fifteen months later, Chea, now 37 years old, is a digital storyteller, educator, and mental health advocate whose content has been seen by millions and has amassed a following of over 80,300 on Instagram.
Raised by a Dominican mother and a Mexican-American father in Corpus Christi, Texas, Chea grew up in a typical Latinx immigrant household and attended Catholic school through high school. As a child with undiagnosed ADHD, she experienced many emotional ups and downs and often had trouble completing tasks and following through on things; her parents, not quite understanding mental health, initially believed these issues were caused by hormones.
“If there are any issues that arise in the family, it’s not like the first person they go see is a doctor. It’s more like let’s go to church. Let’s visit with the priest; maybe you need to go to confession. Let’s go to adoration on Friday nights,” Chea tells HipLatina.
At school, Chea faced more challenges; her school wasn’t very diverse, and because of her focus on special interests and her lack of social skills and development, she had trouble interacting with other children at school and often felt like a fish out of water growing up. Not knowing where else to turn, Chea threw herself into academics and music, and she quickly excelled. She initially went to college to major in flute performance, but after changing her major four times and jumping from professor to professor, she found that she was too scattered to decide on a specific major and moved back home after two years of college.
Shortly after, she bought a one-way ticket to Mexico, moved to Cuernavaca in Morelos, and began working as an English as a second language teacher for students in business school. As she learned the ins and outs of living alone in a foreign country, she also had to face a lot of ADHD traits she hadn’t familiarized herself with yet such as impulsivity and forgetting to feed herself daily.
Chea soon realized that living paycheck-to-paycheck alone in a garage apartment in Cuernavaca wasn’t sustainable. In what she calls her “jolt back to reality,” she called her dad hoping that he’d buy her a ticket back home, which he promised to do if she finished her degree. Soon after, Chea graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in psychology, and she went on to get a master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology through the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
After getting pregnant with her and her husband’s first child, she decided to stay home with the new baby. She decided to open a piano studio out of her home and saw great success. Finally feeling like she found somewhere to land, she continued with her music education business; shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
Once the pandemic was in effect, Chea now had to homeschool her children and transition her business to online. She quickly realized how overstimulated and vulnerable she felt when the systems and mechanisms she’d kept in place to function fell apart. By the summer of 2021, she felt like a mess and had no motivation to get out of bed, feed her kids, or do anything. Struggling and unsure of what to do, she decided to reach out to her primary care provider, who diagnosed her with generalized anxiety disorder.
However, when she still felt no relief two months later, her doctor, believing she needed more specialized help, referred her to a behavioral nurse practitioner and ADHD specialist with a Ph.D. Three months and several appointments and journal entries later, Chea was diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type, and shortly after she began taking medication, the fog had lifted and her anxiety had improved.
While Chea’s ADHD diagnosis was a new thing she was learning to cope with, the symptoms had been present earlier in her life. To better understand how this disorder impacts the lives of those who have it, it’s important to note that according to Mental Health America’s report on ADHD/ADD, there are three kinds of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive type, and a combination of both. While symptoms vary for each, some common ones include forgetfulness, misperception of time, impulsivity, rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), and burnout.
Throughout her life, Chea remembers instances when these symptoms were present before she was diagnosed. For example, when Chea was part of a small choir while majoring in vocal performance in college, she ultimately forgot about an out-of-state rehearsal until an angry choir classmate showed up to her dorm room the day after, leaving her feeling ashamed and humiliated. Another time, when Chea was working as an ESL teacher in Mexico, she impulsively marched up to the school director’s office after hearing that many of her coworkers weren’t getting paid and raised a stink; due to this decision, she wound up leaving the office and school premises no longer being employed there.
“Impulsivity is something where when you say something or do something, it releases dopamine. It keeps us interested and excited, so that leads to risky behaviors like speaking up when maybe it’s not best to,” Chea clarifies. “All these things play a part; it affects every aspect of our lives.”
For Chea, the symptom she’s struggled with the most is emotional dysregulation. In her “tumultuous teen years,” as she calls them, and her twenties, Chea often felt as though she had no control over or understanding of her emotions and how to deal with them, as small simple things often sent her into long sporadic crying spells. Because of this, she often felt confused by herself and frustrated, unable to name her emotions or accept what she was feeling. While Chea still struggles with this today, she copes with her emotions by journaling frequently and using apps like CocoonWeaver, a voice notes recording repository where you can record your thoughts and feelings and sort them into different “cocoons.”
“I have a whole cocoon where I talk about fear,” she explains. “Since a lot of my anxiety is rooted in fear, fear of failure, fear of success, [or] fear of the future, I will voice those emotions in that cocoon, so I’m able to think it through to process those emotions better. Then, I have a greater understanding of them so that when I have the chance to actually talk about those emotions, I won’t end up in a crying spell because I’ve already had the chance to process them.”
According to Mental Health America’s report on the Latinx communities, research shows that older adults and youth in our communities, especially those who are U.S.-born, are susceptible to distress relating to immigration/acculturation. Additionally, according to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, mental health issues are increasing amongst Latinx people between the ages of 12-49. However, Chea noticed as a teenager that conversations surrounding mental health in her family were often met with silence and confusion, at first, followed by gaslighting due to a lack of knowledge.
“In our communities, mental health stigma is massive and rooted in so many things like distrust in the medical system, how Western medicine completely erases a lot of our deep cultural ties to natural healing methods, and things that our culture trusts more: intuition, herbs, curanderismo, nutrition,” Chea says. “[In] those conversations, I was gaslit, but it was rooted in things like lack of understanding, lack of knowledge, and distrust in the medical system.”
When she initially tried to talk to her family about mental health and her ADHD diagnosis, she was met with defensiveness and confusion as well as questions like “why are you telling me these things?” and “was I a bad parent?”
“When our immigrant families came, they went through a culture shock and trauma from those years of trying to assimilate,” she explains. “Our struggles, in their eyes, will never equate to their struggles, so they refuse to help us with our struggles, which leaves us vulnerable to passing on that trauma again to the next generation.”
According to Mental Health America, religion plays a huge role in our community’s stigmatization of mental illness, as many consider mental illness to be caused by things like a lack of faith or sinful behavior. Additionally, a huge belief in our communities is that talking about mental health with others creates embarrassment and shame for your family, so it’s best to keep things like that to yourself.
In the conversations about mental health and ADHD that she has with her family now, Chea ensures that she’s equipped with the knowledge of her experiences with mental health and that she’s coming to them from a place of understanding and grace in order for her family to know that she’s not blaming them for her issues but that she’s simply sharing her experience with them to help them better understand what she struggles with and where she’s coming from. She stresses the importance of understanding that in the past, your family acted with what they knew at the time.
Because mental health can be such a taboo topic in our communities, trying to have open conversations about it with family can feel impossible. For those who either identify with symptoms or have been diagnosed with ADHD, Chea suggests being prepared for all kinds of reactions, ranging from positive to neutral to negative.
There are many ways to create a dialogue about your mental health with your family; you could text a family member you trust, set up a time to meet and try having a conversation with them. If the kitchen table brings your family members together, you could try bringing the topic up there; if your siblings or primos are there and can relate to how you’re feeling, they might be able to back you up. If your family members are old school, you could try writing them a letter to better communicate how you’re feeling in a way that they can better understand it. For those unsure of where to start, Chea has created a guide on how to approach these conversations.
“You could say, ‘Tia, can we talk? I have a question about XYZ and how I might be having a hard time with this,’ and then she says, ‘oh yeah, come over after merienda we’ll have whatever,’” she suggests. “Then you’re like, “ok, well, she’ll be in a good mood. She’ll just have finished having chismes with her friends; she’s having a good time; she’s in a good spot,’ so you can have that conversation with her, and you know that she’ll be in a good mental space.”
Because her diagnosis and her page were born out of a summertime slump in 2021 that she now knows was ADHD burnout, a lot of the information and content she shares are about burnout, how to pull yourself out of it, and how to manage your ADHD symptoms to avoid burnout.
“Your day-to-day life is impacted so significantly that you’ve lost all interest in the things that used to bring you joy; you have 0 motivation to do basic necessities like hygiene and feeding yourself; you can literally have a stack of responsibilities that you know you need to do, and you look at it, and you’re like ‘I’m just a shell of a human,” Chea explains. “The idea with burnout recovery is that it’s a fundamental shift in how you approach your day-to-day life.”
For those currently struggling with burnout or who are in recovery, Chea recommends three main techniques. First, she suggests setting and enforcing boundaries that work for you and protect your peace. Next, she advises people to “set the bar low, and then lower it again,” giving themselves permission to do less so they can get back on their feet and feel more capable. Lastly, she encourages people, especially those who tend to be people pleasers, to say no; this way, they are honoring themselves instead of doing things for the sake of pleasing others. By following these three tips, those suffering from burnout or who are in recovery will find it easier to pull themselves out.
Chea believes the key to managing other ADHD symptoms and avoiding burnout lies in finding tools like visual reminders, timers, and planners as well as getting a healthy combination of good nutrition, sleep, hydration, and exercise/movement. A technique she is particularly fond of is breaking tasks and things you have to do up into three steps so you can take one step at a time. For Chea, practicing ADHD management creates a foundation that helps her feel more capable and takes away the tenuousness of all her daily tasks.
“It’s like when you go to the circus, and you see the person spinning plates and balancing, and they’re on one toe, and they have it on their head,” Chea explains. “I consider the ADHD management as like if you imagine that same circus person but having like eight arms like an octopus. We have enough arms now; we grow all those extra arms when we’re taking care of our ADHD.”
Other factors she considers helpful include medication (if it’s a part of your treatment and is suitable for you) and being part of a community that can understand what you’re going through and holds you accountable to your commitments and goals. This is what inspired Chea’s new venture, the Accountable Otters Club, an accountability membership program that provides ADHD individuals with a safe space to share what they’re working on and a community to hold them accountable to follow through on those commitments. The program teaches a formula Chea created to help people manage action days and rest days while practicing burnout prevention daily to motivate members and help them achieve more.
“I have people that are trying to be more mindful and get more connected to their spiritual side,” she says. “People are able to use that community environment to bring whatever their dreams are to life through the formula and the process that I designed.”
In Izzie and ADHD’s future, Chea hopes to move past learning about ADHD and mental health in the Latinx community and move toward actually making a difference in people’s lives. By creating motivating content as well as services like the Accountable Otters Club, she aims to provide a community service for neurodivergent people who need help and guidance. Looking forward, Chea’s goal is to go beyond the likes, shares, and views to impact people’s lives on a daily basis.
“If that helps tell their story and communicate better with their community and the people they care about, then my job is well done,” she tells us. “You may not relate to what may be considered average or normal or regular in life, but that doesn’t make you any less of a human or less of a person. You just haven’t found the people that you need to be around.”