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Minority Mental Health: Cultural Identity and Mental Illness

By Carlos A. Larrauri, R.N., B.A.
July 17, 2017 

As the son of Cuban immigrants, I grew up as the first person in my family born in the United States. My mother’s family fled Cuba when she was four years old and my father, a foreign educated physician, came to the United States in his late 30’s. They both faced enormous adversity with the hopes of starting new lives. Looking back on my own experience – developing mental illness and my subsequent recovery – I see the unique strengths, as well as challenges and stigma, diverse and multicultural communities face when it comes to mental illness.

Early on in my recovery, I was expected to get out into the community and back to school and work. My father took me by the hand and enrolled me in community college classes. He said, “You can’t stay home all day talking to the television and smoking cigarettes.” His manner was brusque, but he was correct in the sense that individuals who return to structured school or work activity early on are more likely to achieve better outcomes.

Immediately going back to school required that I learn how to manage symptoms in the classroom or on public transportation, interact with others when I wasn’t feeling well, and practice other aspects of navigating my illness and recovery in the community.

Moreover, my mother encouraged me to “own it” and embrace my identity as an individual in recovery from mental illness. With her support, I started a blog reviewing books on mental illness, trained to become a NAMI Connections facilitator, and ultimately decided to become a mental health professional. Despite being diagnosed with schizophrenia, I graduated this summer as a Family Nurse Practitioner from the University of Miami, and plan to continue my training for practice as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. I believe that even one of the most harrowing experience can be transformed into an opportunity for growth, and my recovery has benefited from the cultural expectations of community participation and family support.

On the other hand, I have also struggled because of stigma and unique cultural elements. I continue to hear the myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness in the dialogue within my family. Comments like, “Experimenting with drugs in college caused you to lose your mind…” or “Your relationship with your mother makes you both sick.”

Furthermore, our manner of communication can be loud, expressive and confrontational, which is not best suited for communicating during crisis situations, or managing complicated emotions and difficult decisions. Lastly, machismo culture has prevented other family members from accepting or seeking out help when needed.

Diverse and multicultural communities face unique challenges when it comes to mental illness, but can also draw on their unique strengths. Expectations regarding recovery, misconceptions surrounding mental illness, and cultural communication are still day-to-day struggles in my recovery. Nevertheless, I have come to better appreciate the strength of a multicultural identity, and the sacrifices my parents endured to have better lives. Together, let’s more openly discuss these strengths and challenges, and take mental illness from out of the shadows of stigma, and into the light.

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and we’d love your help spreading awareness about the challenges and stigma diverse and multicultural communities face when it comes to mental illness.

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