Notes from the 2019 Filipino Mental Health and Wellness Summit
ON Saturday, April 13, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, Special Service for Groups and Filipino American Service Group, Inc. hosted the 2019 Filipino Mental Health and Wellness Summit, an all-day, all-encompassing conference focussed on the past, present and future of mental health within the Filipino community.
The summit, subtitled “Healing the Present through Remembering the Past and Empowering Our Future,” featured workshops and panels led by Filipino mental health professionals, academics and advocates, including New York City-based professor of psychology and author Dr. Kevin Nadal who delivered the keynote speech of the conference.
In attendance in the sold-out event were hundreds of Filipino Americans of all ages, sexual orientations and backgrounds. Workshops tackled a host of issues specific to the Filipino community including gambling addiction, how to discuss mental health within the family, the colonial mentality and understanding the struggles and needs of intersectional identities such as Filipinx members of the LGBT community.
A second-generation Filipino-American I met in between workshops who told me about the difficulty of coming to terms with the fact that “mental health and coming out as gay to my family” has severed his relationship “entirely” with his parents.
“When I made that decision to come out [at 21 years old], my parents did everything but officially disown me, and…” he takes a pause here, fidgeting with his hands as if reaching for the confidence to admit it himself. (This individual asked not to be named.)
He continues, “It put me in a bad place, mentally and emotionally. I became depressed in a way that I never felt before. The isolation was debilitating. I haven’t spoken to my parents in a long time.”
When it came to seeking therapy, he admitted the difficulty in it. The stigma attached to mental health treatment — therapy, psychiatry, and medication to name a few — colors nearly every Filipinx’s decision to seek out professional health.
Forging a conversation with your family about mental health is difficult for anyone, but within the Filipino community, there are different obstacles.
“Sometimes, it feels like I’m less a part of a family and more so a part of a public relations firm,” another young Filipinx told me right after a workshop called “Spilling the Tea: Is This Just a Phase?” led by academics and state mental health officials.
“It’s an unspoken thing in our family that can only be cured through distraction and church. There’s no tackling it head-on, which makes it — and has made it — worse. The fear of being perceived as weak is a real thing. Saving face, and making sure that our family looks good from the perspectives of others trumps everything else, and I think that’s common among our community,” they said.
Mitigating shame, avoiding vulnerability and the need to assimilate to the majority are three of the main tenets of the relationship between mental health and the Filipino community, which are tethered to the idea of the internalized inferiority shared among many other immigrant and ethnic diaspora groups.
Throughout my stint at Asian Journal, I’ve interviewed many a Filipino American who has either explicitly or suggested this distance between them and their Filipino heritage. Many of us with immigrant parents are raised with little to no knowledge about Philippine culture and customs, and the goal in parenting is some degree of erasure of the ethnic identity in place of the national identity of being an American.
This phenomenon is so ubiquitous that it has its own name: the colonial mentality, which is that learned feeling of inferiority from being a Filipino.
Over the last 15 years, scholars have tried to quantify and research the colonial mentality among Filipinos, namely the so-called “Americanization” of the culture. Nadal posited that the colonial mentality shared among Filipinos — usually unconsciously — involves an ethnic inferiority complex which triggers the need to assimilate with the majority, which, in this case, is Americana.
It’s why so many second-generation Filipino Americans don’t know the mother language, Nadal explained. It’s the reason there’s often a distance between this generation of Filipino Americans and so many aspects of the mother culture (save for the cuisine, of course) from the slow curtailment of teaching younger generations Tagalog to the overwhelming popularity of skin-lightening.
“Yeah, she didn’t take to it quite well, to put it lightly,” 29-year-old Filipina-American writer Genesis Padilla told me during a group exercise with a melancholic laugh.
Padilla was talking about telling her immigrant mother about going to therapy for the first time two years ago, to which her mother recoiled and replied, “You don’t need that. You’re fine. We raised you well, and you haven’t been through what I have and I didn’t need therapy. You’re not crazy.”
She said that she felt invalidated, like what she was going through was so minuscule it didn’t warrant such “drastic measures.”
But what happens when a much-needed conversation of an often-life threatening thing is pushed under the rug so much? What happens when very real feelings are ignored and thoughts and emotions build up to a certain point?
Asian Americans are among the least likely to seek out mental health services, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control. But Asian American students (19 percent) are more likely to consider suicide compared to white students (15 percent).
Within the Filipino community, about 15 percent of Filipinos are diagnosed with depression with Filipinas more likely to have suicidal ideations and attempts, according to a 2014 report from the Asian American Journal of Psychology.
“The goal here is to spark the conversation early and often enough, and that begins with quelling the fears and stigmas that surround even just mentioning things like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, addiction bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, etc.,” one of the panelists said during a workshop on improving family communication around “life’s toughest challenges.”
“It is not to talk about this when it’s already too late, and those parameters exist for every single person,” he said.
For those in need of mental health services, you can consult your primary care physician for further resources. The LA County Department of Mental Health offers access to resources, as well — visit their website at https://dmh.lacounty.gov or call them at their 24/7 Help hotline at (800) 854-7771.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For emergencies, always dial 9-1-1.