When my husband and I had our first baby, I was 29 years old and had just finished my master’s degree. I was living my best life, making my own choices and imagining that my 30s would be nothing but smooth sailing ahead.
Here’s what actually happened: I brought a little human into the world, and in the process completely lost myself and the life I knew.
It was the supposed happiest time of my life, yet I felt like I was being submerged under a tsunami of sadness and despondency. When I look back now, it’s so clear that I was suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety, but I was completely oblivious at the time.
Even if I had sensed it, there was no space for me to admit the truth.
As a first-generation immigrant, I came to the U.S. when I was 6 years old and assimilated quickly to my new adopted culture ― Chicago in the mid-’80s. The experience instilled a lifelong appreciation of having hit the jackpot of growing up as an American citizen.
Throughout my life, I have been cognizant of how radically empowered and advantageous my life has been because of my parents’ decision to immigrate.
So, even as I battled my own version of Dementors during that first year of motherhood, I was crippled by the throbbing awareness of how privileged my life was. I mean, as a Pakistani American girl, I had won the lottery for having parents who left their homeland to seek educational opportunities for their girls. My parents allowed me to speak my mind openly, pick what major I would pursue in college, choose my own life partner, and in general make all of my own life decisions.
What in the world could I possibly be depressed about? There was no room for me to be anything but ecstatic and grateful for this next phase of my life. This played a huge role in hindering my ability to identify, much less seek help for, a disease that does not discriminate. But the tightness in my chest never subsided and oftentimes made me wish I could fall asleep and never wake up.
Postpartum depression cannot be warded off by socioeconomic status or your level of education or your absolute belief in God ― and definitely not by the privileges afforded to you.
Women, in general, have a hard time recognizing or being diagnosed for postpartum depression due to lack of knowledge, social stigmas and economic barriers. But for women of color, the hurdles are even more pronounced because of the additional burdens of religious and ethnic expectations, and lack of cultural competence among providers and little to no mental health services within the community.
For example, different ethnicities can have varying symptoms that aren’t always easily identifiable by a Caucasian provider. In Asian Americans, mental illness commonly shows up as physical symptoms such as headaches, backaches and gastrointestinal pain.
From my own experience, I can say that I struggled ferociously with the shame of being a Muslim woman who could not find inner peace by praying. In the Muslim culture (and yes, there is a distinction from the religion of Islam), struggles with mental illness are often seen as a sign of weakness in one’s faith or an inconvenient influence from modern society.
In most Islamic countries, including Pakistan, attempting suicide is a criminal offense, which makes it chronically underreported. If someone actually succumbs to taking their own life, the vast majority of mosques will deny the person their last rites and burial, leaving grieving families scrambling on how and where to bury their loved ones.
Plus, within the Pakistani culture, there is rampant stigma around mental illness in which people are quickly dismissed as crazy or under the influence of something supernatural (“jinns”) and shunned from social interaction.
I was well educated, in a healthy relationship and had access to great insurance – I was the picture-perfect example of a first-generation immigrant who had made it. And so, I suffered in silence. The desire to exude happiness left me feeling hollowed out and isolated from the very community I was trying to appease.
Even though research on postpartum depression has advanced significantly over the last decade, there is still inadequate focus on PPD and women of color. What we do know is this: Evidence shows that there is a significant disparity between mental health diagnosis and treatment for black, Indigenous and people of color and their Caucasian counterparts. Plus, research indicates that women of color are two to three times more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, yet white women are much more likely to begin postpartum mental health treatment than women of color.
It took me the birth of my second child and another round of postpartum depression to finally seek help from a medical professional.
Medicine combined with therapy helped tremendously, but I still struggle with the cultural and religious stigma of being vocal about my mental health struggle. I still feel compelled to add “but I love my kids SO much” whenever I talk about my experience with postpartum depression. I still hesitate to share that antidepressants helped me become a better mother.
And so, I still go to therapy and work against the notion that the privileges I have been awarded as a first-generation immigrant can somehow safeguard me from depression.
I vehemently believe every single person can benefit from going to therapy and it is one of the bravest and most empowering things you can do for yourself. I am able to manage my depression with regular therapy and a small community of loved ones who can sit with me through the melancholy and help me find my way out. No one else can do the hard work for me, but having a support system makes the passage to the other side much less arduous.
Here’s what I would want a woman of color suffering through mental anguish to know: You cannot inoculate yourself from your mental struggles by denying its existence. You must be proactive in finding support, even if that means going outside of your community of loved ones and seeking professional help. Going to a psychiatrist or therapist does not make one self-indulgent: It is a cognizant act of self-love and mercy for which you don’t owe any explanations or apologies.
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