Image: created by Lydia Ortiz. Image Source.
Every morning (and on occasion, afternoon), I take a small, oblong shaped pill. It’s a bit chalky, and doesn’t taste particularly nice, but it needs to be done. Each pill contains 100mg of sertraline, one of the most basic SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) available. More often than not, it goes by the pharmaceutical name “Zoloft” – and chances are, you will probably know at least one person who takes it, or a similar type of anti-depressant. I started taking it about a year and a half ago, almost ten years after I’d first been informed that I had depression.
I am lucky that sertraline, the first SSRI I was prescribed, worked for me. Different people have different reactions to different medications, and it’s all about finding that balance for your body. I was lucky that the only side effects I experienced during the two week adjustment period (the period within which your body tries to adjust to the new levels of neurotransmitters you’ve put into your bloodstream) were a three day loss of appetite, and visibly trembling for about a week and a half. Upon reflection, I should have probably started taking medication a bit earlier, given the impact it has had on my mood and the way I live my life – but I was brought up in a family environment where you did not take medication (even ibuprofen or paracetamol) unless the pain was almost unbearable.
I think my parents, on some level, subscribed to the notion that manufactured chemicals were bad for the body, especially when my sister and I were a little younger. As a result, pain medication was taken as a last resort. We never had more than a couple of capsules of Panadol in the house at any one time, and it wasn’t until I first had my braces put on, when I was about 15, that I’d taken more than one capsule in a twenty-four hour period. I simply dealt with headaches and period cramps by drinking a lot of water and waiting for them to subside, as per my parents’ instructions.
So it was no wonder that after I was diagnosed, and after I had procured the requisite amount of research to understand what was going on, I decided that there was no way I would ever take medication to manage my depression. I’d heard and read about the side effects of such medication, and at the ripe age of about fourteen, I had seemingly made up my mind. So I saw counsellors instead, and confided in friends. But managing the levels of my neurotransmitters provides a type of relief I almost certainly could not achieve with cognitive behaviour therapy.
My parents’ aversion to medication was compounded by their attitudes towards depression, and indeed, mental illness as a whole. I have told my father about my depression at least four times, and mum at least twice, but I still don’t think they really understand what I’m trying to tell them. I’ve heard them talk about one of their friends who was suffering from severe depression in almost derogatory terms, dismissing his condition as something that could simply be fixed by strengthening his resolve. It is, then, no wonder that it took me so longer to even pluck up the courage to tell my father, let alone my mother, who I knew would be the tougher nut to crack.
I have long since given up on trying again, even though I do still hold out hope for the long term future. I know that at least a little part of it can be attributed to the Chinese notion of “saving face”, a concept with which I’m sure most people are familiar. But for those who have not been born into or immersed in Chinese culture, it is difficult to explain the importance of “face” in everyday life. “Face” is the reason my parents will nitpick all of my life choices in private, while also listing my achievements to their friends. There is, and will always be, unspoken tug-of-wars between my parents and their friends over the states of their lives, and their children’s lives, urged on (at least in part) by this culturally charged notion of pride.
And so, knowing all this, how do you talk about medication to people who think ibuprofen and paracetamol should only be taken sparingly? How do you talk about medication to people who don’t even believe that your condition really exists? The answer is – you don’t. Because I knew I couldn’t turn to my parents for advice, I struggled through friends and exes, some of whom took advantage of me, and others who simply could not “cope” with what they called my “attention seeking”. But again, I was extremely lucky to find a GP who genuinely cared about me, who understood the intricacies of Chinese culture and the impacts it could have on a young woman attempting to straddle the fine line between her culture and the environment in which she had been raised. I was, and am lucky. I know others have not been so fortunate.
Many of these others are people just like me – leading seemingly normal lives, going about their daily business. The struggle is there, it’s just covered by a mask of normality. I think it is fantastic that mental health awareness has become such a priority in this country, and indeed, around the world. I thoroughly enjoyed ABC2’s Mental As programming last year, and watched some of the programs they ran this year during mental health week. But the one glaring issue, at least for me, is one that is rampant throughout Australian media – and it is that I barely saw any people of colour represented on screen.
One of the main arguments (and I totally agree) for more representation on television, film, in the mainstream media in general, is that what we watch and absorb should be reflective of the society in which we live and participate. This is particularly important when it comes to programs that discuss issues of mental health (and disability, but that’s a whole other article for someone else to write) – not only because it provides a validity for your place in that society – but also because a non-diverse series of participants will ultimately fail to address the nuances that are inherent in any culture. There will be no acknowledgement of the filial piety that is so ingrained in many Chinese people, no acknowledgement of the fact that most of the time, it is easier to stay quiet than to fight for your right to be heard.
Young people of colour who should be able to see that people just like them have had similar experiences, and that they have done so despite and in spite of myriad cultural pressures. It might get one more person onto the medication they need. It might get one more person to go and see their GP, or to go to their nearest Headspace. It might just save one more life.
If you, or someone you love, needs to reach out please contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636