I never saw it coming. It hit me like a truck, and every time I tried standing up, it just turned back to hit me again. It is an expert thief because it stole my hopes, happiness and energy while only leaving me with numbness. Living with it was like watching all my friends enjoy a sunny day on the quad but being unable to join them. I could describe it forever, but unfortunately, these metaphors do not suffice to describe the parasite which took hold of my life: major depressive disorder.
I denied even the prospect of associating myself with depression. I had always been told depression is a myth or even a weak excuse used by unproductive bums to mask their laziness. My culture, just like many in Latin America and other regions of the world, is certainly guilty of stigmatizing mental health. For one, it is forbidden to disagree with or, God forbid, talk back to parental or family authority. If they say the solution to your “depression” is praying more, working harder (i.e., “get over it!”) or enduring punishment, then the decision is final. This especially applies to men, because talking about your sadness, or even showing it, is considered a symbol of weakness and sometimes a disrespect to your family’s honor.
This is why the first thing I felt when I received my diagnosis in the spring of 2020 was shame. How could I, a low-income Latino man, explain to my professors, parents and friends that I had been seeing a therapist without being labeled insane or weak-minded? How could I balance taking care of the needs of those I love, like my brother, while also taking care of my own needs in this energyless state? But most importantly, how do I begin to recover while trying to excel in a rigorous course load?
The first step to my recovery became acceptance: both of my depression and of the fact that I needed help. As an immigrant, I had become a trailblazer for my family’s American Dream and developed a prideful sense of independence where I had to work like a machine to meet my goals, even if it meant ignoring my emotional needs. For a long time, this “might makes right” philosophy worked, and it seemed to work for my friends here at Bowdoin, too. Unfortunately, underneath my facade of playful jokes lay a yearning for a shoulder to cry on.
I love Bowdoin. However, because of how busy people are all the time, it can often become isolating. Opening up to the right people cured that sense of loneliness, and I was surprised by both the level of empathy (and, unfortunately, also apathy) that was shown. In this journey of emotional maturity, I learned that there is no shame in asking for help, even if it meant seeking out counseling. As my first-year dean put it: “You are not a machine. You have needs and emotions to care for, and you should not feel ashamed about it. If your mind is not healthy, how can you succeed?”
The second step became understanding where my depression came from. In confronting my past, I began to understand the toxic cultural dynamics which gave me the mindsets that bred my hopelessness. Many types of students, from first-generation immigrants to low-income students to people of color, carry the weight of their family’s expectations, dreams and trauma. As educated people, we have the difficult task of understanding and challenging the generational cycles of sexist, racist and emotionally oppressive norms for future generations. For me, that task became confronting the toxic masculinity of my family, and in turn building the support system which I did not have before.
My final step, the one I am currently in, is taking action. My experiences with depression became the darkest moments of my life, but I believe that these experiences are not unique. Depression does not discriminate; it does not care about socioeconomic status, it does not care about the color of your skin and it certainly does not care who it strikes. I wrote this column not because I wanted to incite pity, but rather because I wanted to demonstrate through my storytelling that we as students should not suffer from depression in silence and that recovery is possible.
It can certainly be difficult to come forward and tell these types of stories, especially in the face of stigma. When a close childhood friend of mine committed suicide in November 2019, I became haunted by the idea that I, or any other clinically depressed friend, could have easily been in his position. I would hope every one of us has someone who supports them through their mental health difficulties, but that may not be the case for everyone. Therefore, I urge the Bowdoin administration to seriously expand mental health services (e.g., hire more full-time counselors to meet demand) to address the health of our students, especially those without the luxury of feeling comfortable in sharing their experiences.
To my Bowdoin peers, I hope you feel validated when telling your experiences and have the support you DESERVE in navigating difficult times. Your emotions and how you feel are important, and I am sorry if someone has taught you otherwise. For the sake of our community, we must show that we care and that we are here to listen. If you see me on campus, know that I care, too.