Since 2016, I’ve shared my mental health struggles both on and off the web. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about opening up this dialogue as a young Filipina woman, it’s that the conversation on Filipino mental health is hard.
Living with borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, and anxiety, I often compare my mental health to a not-so-fun cocktail. I’ve had loved ones urge me not to share my experiences because they can be embarrassing. Some have told me that I just need to pray more. Some tend to mix up BPD with bipolar disorder.
Some walk on eggshells. It’s frustrating.
But I know I’m not alone. Mental illness is the third most common disability in the Philippines. When it comes to the diaspora, The Journal of Counseling and Development found that “Filipino Americans experience mental health concerns just as much or more frequently than other Asian Americans and other racial minority groups.”
I still have so much to learn about my mental health. But from the last five years, what I’ve seen is that while it’s been messy, the work and the love poured into myself and my community is worth it.
These are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Editor’s note: in writing about her mental wellness and healing, the writer includes brief and non-graphic mentions of anxiety attacks, body shaming, and suicidal feelings. If any of these are triggering to you, be gentle with yourself. (Here are other stories of ours.) For mental health support, we’ve included resources at the end of the article.
Let’s be clear: vulnerability is not shameful.
According to E.J.R. David, author of Brown Skin, White Minds, which explores Filipino-American psychology, we are a “collectivistic people” who are deeply family-centered. The shame tied to vulnerability, that exists for so many globally, is compounded for our community.
This is why we are often afraid of seeking out health resources, despite being dubbed an “emotional people”. On top of it all, the myth of Filipino resilience tells us that we have to endure our suffering, that the pain makes us stronger.
I didn’t always have a name for what I was dealing with. I knew I was sensitive. I used to cry and have what I later learned were anxiety attacks in bowling alleys, public bathrooms, and even on public transit. And whenever this happened, I would be overwhelmed with the thought, “Nakakahiya naman.” (How shameful.)
By the time I graduated high school, I was sure I needed help. But it took me a year and several breakdowns to reach a point where I finally booked an appointment with my family doctor and got a referral for a psychotherapist.
Recently, my current therapist reminded me of a quote I shared with her when I first started seeing her. It’s from one of my favourite books, Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë writes, “Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”
Being vulnerable is brave. For myself and others with BPD, it means changing the narrative that surrounds our illness by telling our stories. It means admitting that things are hard. Saying that out loud means you can work through it.
Recognizing that I need to decolonize my view of Filipino mental health and wellness has saved me.
As a kid, I would only write or imagine myself as accomplishing great things as a white person. Unraveling this belief and loving myself as a brown-skinned Filipina is a difficult but radical act I have to choose every day.
Writing this story and taking up space is a deliberate and Brown act of self-love.
Something in particular I am still working through is my body image. Like many Pinays in the homeland or diaspora, my struggles felt normalized with the toxic body shaming of Filipino culture. I was never tall enough. My nose was never European enough. I was too round.
In the last few months, my therapy homework has been affirming my features in the mirror. I have had to write notes of gratitude to my nose and stomach. My eyes.
The internalized racism and self-hatred will not go away overnight. But God, I’ll fight against it every day because mental health is “not something you survive,” it is a life-long commitment and struggle for wellness.
We don’t exist in boxes. It’s time to acknowledge that our mental wellness is layered with the effects of colonialism. Acknowledging that means being open.
Being open means the conversation on Filipino mental health is still going and it is not glamorous.
My parents are Psychology graduates and even then it was an uphill battle to talk about mental health and reach a point of supporting my therapy journey.
They were in denial at first. And I get it. They didn’t want their daughter to hurt, or rather, they didn’t want to face the reality that I was already hurting.
Thankfully, my parents learned to listen.
It takes more than one individual to have a conversation. Together, over the last five years, we tore down that barrier of hiya (shame).
When it was clear I needed more help, it was my dad, a pastor, who came with me to talk to my doctor about feeling suicidal. Recently, someone posted in a Facebook group I’m in asking people to share stories about having Asian parents who’ve been supportive throughout their lives. I answered immediately:
When it comes to Filipino mental health, it’s a personal breakthrough to become more open and vulnerable with those who’re giving support.
I wasn’t always the best at communicating how I felt, and my loved ones have not always been the best at communicating their support.
But we made a commitment to grow together by continuing the conversation and moving beyond our personal shortcomings.
Support is everything. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just genuine.
Support is different for everyone. It doesn’t always come from our biological family.
Two years ago, my childhood friend sat outside my therapist’s office and kept me company even after my appointment ended.
Last year, I shared a video with my best friend about how someone can deal with a loved one who has BPD. I was touched to find out she had already been doing her own research privately.
Another one of my best friends created a channel on our Discord server just to share our finds about psychology, mental health, and wellness strategies.
It has meant the world to me. It means I’m not alone.
Support for my mental wellbeing has come in the form of friends who call late in the night to talk through trauma and who have encouraged me more than once to take care of myself.
Whether they’re our family, friends, or partners, whoever is on our team has to be willing to listen, ask questions, and go looking for answers together.
Ultimately, it comes down to compassion and acceptance—for ourselves and for each other.
I hope, wherever you are in your own journey, that you are open and able to talk about your mental health. If someone comes to you, I hope you stay compassionate and empathetic with their story.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think I’ll ever have them all. What I do know is that I’ll keep searching for as many as I can with the family and friends that I have chosen to bring along with me.
A lot of the work I’ve been doing in the last few years comes down to self-acceptance. I used to separate accepting other parts of myself from accepting that I’m Filipina. But I am all these things.
I am Filipina and I celebrate that. I have mental illness and I’m working through that. I am sometimes shy and sometimes loud, especially when it comes to mental health, and I’m learning to love that.
I deserve to take up space. You do, too.
Filipino and AAPI Mental Health Resources
17 Mental Health Resources for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Suicide Prevention Lifeline | CALL 1-(800)-273-8255
Filipino Therapists in Toronto
CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)
Crisis Service Canada | CALL 1-(833)-456-4566 or TEXT 45645
Crisis Text Line (US and Canada): 741741