When I was 25, I had a nervous breakdown. Whilst I was in the grips of being taken hostage by my own body and thoughts, I distinctly recall my father saying ‘just don’t think too much about it and it will go away’. If only it were that simple.
In Vietnamese, there are two words that are commonly used to describe mental illness, that being khùng and tửng which are both variations of the word ‘crazy’. These words were often thrown around when describing distant relatives who were unable to function in society. The words to describe anxiety were not even a part of my family’s vocabulary and when my mother was diagnosed with depression, I recall my father acting with the similar dismissive attitude; that we were bringing on these illnesses ourselves with our overthinking. Growing up with this understanding of mental health, it is easy to see why I convinced myself that I was insane beyond repair and also why I felt a huge amount of stigma reaching out for help, particularly as one of my parents didn’t believe in the concept of mental illness and whose understanding of mental illness was that it was a personal weakness that could be overcome with minimal intervention.
The decline in my mental health was gradual - severe anxiety that was building over a period of ten years but I never had the knowledge to seek help.
The decline in my mental health was gradual and it was a culmination of what I now know to be severe anxiety that was building over a period of ten years but never had the knowledge to seek help. In the four months before my breakdown, I actively resisted my GP’s recommendations to be put on medication because I was of the strong belief that if I just worked hard enough on myself and my brain, I would be able to get better. For me, being medicated was the ultimate sign that I ‘failed’ in my battle against mental illness. I had just accepted a new job and gave myself just six weeks to ‘get better’. I tried to do the right things; I ate well, exercised daily and went to my fortnightly psychologist sessions. As my father had said, if I just worked hard enough, I could recover.
In the meantime, my anxiety was spiraling out of control and I found it almost impossible to catch the train to work without having panic attacks every morning. Getting out of bed was becoming difficult and doing basic tasks like dressing myself and cooking sent my brain into overdrive. My anxiety gave rise to physical illnesses where I found it impossible to eat without developing major digestive issues, resulting in an obsession with food. Despite doing all the ‘right things’, my condition seemed to be getting worse and I was barely able to function.
The turning point came when I literally hit rock bottom and collapsed in a public café.
The turning point came when I literally hit rock bottom and collapsed in a public café. Looking back at both the physical and mental strain that had been building at a rapid pace for months, this really should have come at no surprise. Hitting rock bottom crystalised things for me and was the turning point that I needed to shake myself off of the stigma that I had internalised about my mental health. I shook off all the shame of going on medication and getting help from a psychologist. I quit my job with no back up plan. When you’re barely functioning, there is no space for shame.
What has struck me the most about this experience was the extent of this internalised shame and stigma that I carried about my mental illness. Even though I was young, educated and had worked in fields that meant I had more mental health literacy than most, even I was not immune to the sense of stigma and shame. As a child of migrants who had survived war and sacrificed everything, it was hard not to feel a sense of guilt, particularly given I had grown up without want and in a safe, peaceful country, only to be diagnosed with a problem I thought was made up or in my head. Whilst I have no doubt that my father’s attitude towards mental illness was a survival mechanism for him and his experiences, his words did little to dissipate the stigma I already felt about having a mental illness.
What has struck me the most about this experience was the extent of this internalised shame and stigma that I carried about my mental illness.
For Vietnamese migrants of his generation, mental illness is not something openly spoken about. Adding to this silence are the cultural factors such as the need to ‘save face’, a sense of ‘bringing shame’ onto your family and a general mistrust of the modern psychology. Given the horrors of the Vietnam War, my knowledge of mental illness was an abundance of stories about migrants suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression manifesting in destructive ways such as alcoholism or drug use, but never any positive stories of their resilience in overcoming this. It is clear that this dialogue needs to change.
Promisingly, the tide seems to be shifting. In 2017, the Vietnamese community organised a number of workshops targeted specifically at parents and their children in up skilling them in recognising the signs of depression and anxiety, as well as the appropriate referral networks. This followed the Here to Hear campaign in 2015, which was formed after the death of Melbourne radiology student Martin Vo. His family organised Here to Hear to raise awareness about mental illness within the Vietnamese community and to break down the stigma in talking about these issues.
Whilst my experience did not dramatically alter my father’s attitude towards mental health, I have received the most solace in the things he did not say. During the months of my recovery, he was always supportive of my choices to resign from my job and take time off to recover. He has never tried to silence my attempts to speak openly about my experience and has shielded me from any unfavourable comments that may have been made about my illness by ignorant family members. In this sense, his actions have spoken volumes louder than his words. That probably explains why he gave me Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ for Christmas that year.
Anna Nguyen is a freelance writer.
Mental health support services:
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