Growing Up with Latinx Parents with Undiagnosed Mental Health Challenges

Certified Parent Coach Leslie Priscilla is a first generation non-Black Chicana and the founder of Latinx Parenting, a bilingual organization, and the #EndChanclaCulture movement

Latinx parents mental illness

Photo: Unsplash/ Irina Demyanovskikh

Certified Parent Coach Leslie Priscilla is a first generation non-Black Chicana and the founder of Latinx Parenting, a bilingual organization, and the #EndChanclaCulture movement. Latinx Parenting is rooted in children’s rights, nonviolence, reparenting, intergenerational healing, cultural sustenance, and the active decolonization of oppressive practices in our families.

When I was pregnant with my second child five years ago, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I had a 5-year-old at the time, and had spent one summer weekend sobbing on the bathroom floor, wanting it all to end and being angry with myself for it. My partner called my best friend, who then came over with fuzzy socks and a backscratcher. I couldn’t really describe to her what I was experiencing. I couldn’t shake a crushing weight. My midwife referred me to a psychiatrist who provided my diagnoses. When I told her I was concerned about passing down the stress hormones to the baby in my womb, she flippantly said “Oh, mental illness has nothing to do with pregnancy.” If she truly believed this, she was misinformed, and I never saw her again. Instead I began seeing a cultural-affirming therapist.

I felt consistently dysregulated from ongoing unwelcome feelings. My therapist got out her therapy shovel and began to dig. Within a few sessions, she identified something powerful: My second pregnancy was difficult because I hadn’t dealt with the trauma of being a child with a parent who was pregnant with her second child while depressed and suicidal. My nervous system was manifesting fears that my story was echoing my Mami’s, and that I too would cause my children the duress that goes with having a parent struggling with undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and a deep soul wounding.

When I was 9-years-old, my parents were separating and my household was in a state of incessant chaos. The marriage ending catalyzed experiences and terrors a child should never have had to endure. It caused me stomach aches, loss of sleep from hearing loud fights, and an inability to absorb anything at school. And yet, the focus wasn’t on me. It couldn’t be. My Mami was a wreck. She’d already gone through so much trauma in her own childhood including the early parental death, crossing the Rio Grande at 14 to work, and immediately laboring without grieving her own childhood. I wasn’t afraid of la Llorona, I was living with her, and scared for her. I don’t remember why, but one day I went into their bedroom and looked under her pillow. Underneath, I found a folded up paper. I unfolded it to read. In it, she spoke of not wanting to live anymore, of her wishes for me to live with my godparents after she was gone, of her failed attempts to keep going after giving everything she could give. I put it down and sat there for a minute or so. When my Mami walked in a few minutes later, I showed her the letter. It’s hard to remember what she said, but she cried. I also cried. I knew this was big, but I didn’t share it, and we never spoke of it again.

My Mami is still alive, but that time changed her. Although that was the first time I recognized that she could slip into suicidality, it wasn’t the last. She stayed depressed and anxious into my adolescence and early adulthood. Because she had never received mental health support to cope with the traumas of her youth, the separation and all the transitions thereafter compounded her trauma and grief in severe ways. No longer was my Papi around to divert the verbally and sometimes physically violent attention away from me. As I entered my teenage years, it worsened amid her frequent rage. Freshman year, I began cutting as a coping mechanism and started seeing the campus counselor, who told my Mami. It wasn’t received well. Though I longed to escape, it was out of the question because I refused to leave my little sister behind to deal with our mom on her own.

Then a few years ago, decades after finding her suicide note, my Mami was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, and Panic Disorder. After a stressful time working as a nanny for a family full of adults with their own mental health issues, her doctor referred her to a psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants. The medication helped our relationship significantly, though it is not without its challenges still. It sometimes feels more fresh than I am outwardly open about, because our relationship wounds don’t scab over for too long. For Latinx families, it may be common that there are layers of hurt that we have yet to unpack. Fortunately, we are beginning to understand that the stigma around our mental and emotional health challenges does not help the healing process or our capacity for growth and resilience. We have made some progress, but there’s more to be made. Not long ago, I managed programs for my local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Though there was potential for reaching the Latinx community, there was unfortunately little prioritization of those efforts.

Additionally, usage of the term “mental illness” alone to describe a Latinx person’s mental health challenges can be limiting. The term seems to focus mainly on psychological and behavioral aspects of diagnoses, but excludes other contributing factors like a person’s culture, the history of that culture, the ties to social conditions, and even spirituality. Because of this, it has been helpful for me to reframe mental illness in the way Indigenous clinical psychologist Eduardo Duran has described it: a soul wound. This reframe has not only helped me to increase compassion for my Mami, but has also allowed me to explore my own soul wounds and offer myself that compassion. For those of us who grew up with parents whose mental health challenges went or continue to go unaddressed, there can be no shortage of compassion as we remember the children we were and the Inner Niñes that remain within.

My hope is that we recognize that it is not our fault, that the cycles can be stopped once we recognize that our stories matter, and that they do not have to be those of our parents.

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