This is the first part of our series with NPR about mental health and generation gaps.
Have you ever had a hard time talking openly about your mental health?
Only Human and NPR recently asked listeners that question. We wanted to know if the generation that lives so much online is any more comfortable talking about psychological problems — in real life — than their parents are.
Hundreds of thoughtful, heart-breaking, deeply charged responses later, we realized that we had stumbled onto a nest of generational rifts and cultural baggage. And we wanted to explore what it means to be open about mental health on Facebook and YouTube when you don’t want to talk about it with people in the real world.
One of these stories came from a young woman named Rose, a Pakistani American in Texas. Rose had never spoken to her parents about her own depression. But she channeled our question into an awkward conversation with her mother — listen to her story here.
We also talked with young adults who worry they spent too much of their childhood in therapy, people who watched family members suffer with depression in silence, and people who sent anti-anxiety prescriptions to the pharmacy across town so their families wouldn’t know. Generational stigma is an issue, many of them said, that we need to talk about publicly.
With their permission, we’ll be posting some of these stories to our Facebook page at Only Human Podcast. We hope you’ll follow along and join in the conversation there.
If you or someone know is suffering from mental illness, please find helpful resources here.
Special thanks to the Jane and Gerald Katcher and the Katcher Family Foundation for funding our collaboration with NPR.
MARY HARRIS: I’m Mary Harris this is Only Human and this week’s episode is all about eavesdropping.
Rose: Do you think this is a bad idea?
Rose: 50-percent! It’s a bad idea? You are the least supportive person right now.
MH: This tape is from our reporter Kenny Malone he’s here with me.
KENNY MALONE: I wish I could take credit for this tape, this is collected by the young woman you’re hearing.
R: Okay, see that’s why I’m nervous.
KM: A 24-year-old named Rose. She lives in Texas. And what you’re hearing is Rose with her little brother.
KM: Who’s a little tough to understand. But Rose sat down with him about 3 or 4 weeks ago. And was sort of trying to psych herself up for this conversation she’s been avoiding with her mother for a decade.
R: I’m going to ask her how she thinks about mental illness. How she thought about it when she was growing up in Pakistan. But then I’m also going to tell her about my depression.
B: Good luck with that.
KM: “Good luck with that.” he says.
R: Good luck with that! You’re not helping.
MH: You can really hear Rose struggling with how she’s going to have this conversation for all kinds of reasons. But I feel like that struggle, it’s one that a lot of us have just to talk to our parents about who we are.
KM: It’s not like it’s something that we necessarily get to hear other people do. But this week that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Rose is going to listen to her attempt to have that conversation with her mom.
KM: Before we talk about Rose and her mom, let’s just talk about Rose.
KM: What time do you have to be at class?
R: Not ‘til 1.
KM: Rose is in the process of getting a PHD in clinical psychology.
R: I’m in my third year.
KM: So almost done.
R: No. Just about half way there.
KM: Oh good lord. Well, never mind.
KM: And certainly part of why she was interested in going into the field was because of her own history with depression. Which she thinks maybe started in middle school?
R: It’s hard for me to connect it to that time because I was very, very dramatic. So I don’t know how much of my punk rock/emo phase was genuinely being depressed versus thinking that that was cool.
KM: But certainly by high school she was having real bouts of depression.
KM: You know, when we talked earlier it sounded like sort of came to a critical point your senior year of college.
R: Right. My senior year especially was when things started feeling really bad.
KM: She was sleeping for --
R: 12, 14 hours a night. Stopped really having an appetite. Not really wanting to be social. Just feeling isolated. I was crying at Cheerios commercials, which is not normal.
KM: And then, one morning, things got so bad that Rose couldn’t ignore it anymore.
R: And I remember very clearly...
KM: She got out of bed.
R: To brush my teeth. And get ready for the day.
KM: And all of a sudden it felt like she was a ghost in her own room.
R: So I could see myself, I could see myself standing there. It felt like I was in the corner of the room watching myself stand in the corner of the mirror. Just kind of looking but not feeling there. It was horrifying. It was not something I’d ever experienced it before, I haven’t experienced it since then.
And I kind of, I’d been taking like an abnormal psychology class...
KM: And she knew that this would be what someone would call a dissociative experience.
R: But I only knew it in relation to like severe, severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia or having delusions and hallucinations. Never as part of depression. I think that day is when I made an appointment with the counseling center on campus because it was just scary. It was just scary is the most concise way to put it.
KM: Rose started seeing a therapist regularly and feels like she has everything under control. As for why she hasn’t shared it with her parents: That’s a much more complicated story that, counterintuitively, starts with the fact that Rose and her mom have never been closer.
KM: People tell Rose she looks more like her mom than her dad. And Rose says, yeah, they both have long, dark hair and brown eyes and roundish faces. But from her perspective, she just doesn’t see it. Maybe that’s because growing up, a lot of Rose’s childhood was centered around the vast differences between her and her mom.
R: My mom got married from an arranged marriage, didn’t really know her husband very well and then almost immediately moved to a different country. Wasn’t able to visit her family for almost 10 years. Like those are real problems, those are huge struggles to have to deal with as a human. And so for me to say that I’m depressed and I’m struggling and I’m feeling sad and unmotivated seemed frivolous in comparison.
KM: Rose grew up in the United States. Her parents grew up in Pakistan. Rose says she and her mom had the typical fights over boys and curfew and makeup. But then there were all these extra layers of complexity. Rose says her dad is a bit of a feminist, but her mom retained more traditional values when it came to women. When Rose wanted to learn how to play guitar, she got enrolled in sewing lessons. When Rose’s brothers didn’t have to clear the table, Rose still did. And maybe the biggest disagreement was about marriage.
R: So this is something that has been an issue of conflict since I was eleven.
KM: That’s when Rose’s mom started floating the idea of an arranged marriage.
R: Finding someone suitable and it’s become...
KM: Become the symbol of why she and her mom are so different.
R: Whenever I complain about school, the solution is just drop out and get married and start a family. It’s just been a constant thing and I have different priorities right now than she does, and as I’m hitting that really, really old 24, I’m hitting my peak of marital age. And I don’t know. It’s just been a contentious issue. And we both know that we don’t agree on it, and so it makes me angry whenever she uses that as an out for any of my problems.
KM: When Rose and her mom lived under the same roof, it was a lot of tension. Rose says, she cried in the shower since she wasn’t allowed to shut her bedroom door. And so, it was tough. But then Rose moved out for college.
R: That’s not really the norm for our cultural background really.
KM: The compromise was she wouldn’t move too far away and she’d have visit every weekend.
R: But having moved out for college was a really big deal for me. It had done wonders for my relationship with my mom. I had realized that I miss her and I like her for a lot of reasons. Which was harder to notice when I did live at home.
KM: And that’s where things are now: Going pretty well. Rose visits. They talk. They watch Bollywood Movies. They just appreciate each other’s company in a way that it was too intense to do before. And that is what Rose is afraid of ruining by telling her mom about her own depression. Like throwing a stone into calm water.
R: I was afraid that I was going to share this with her and the response would be: I told you it wasn’t good for you to move out, you should have stayed home. You should have listened to me that one time when I told you to eat more yogurt. Like I was afraid it was going to be an I told you so for things I had done she disagreed with.
KM: Which on one hand would be a sign she was taking the problem seriously, I guess, but not recognizing that you as, an adult, can handle it.
R: Right, exactly.
KM: And, on top of that, Rose knows there may be some cultural stigma around depression. So who knows? Maybe it’s not like throwing a stone into the water. Maybe it’s a boulder. But on the other hand, it is dawning on Rose that not talking about mental health is denying the premise of her career as a clinical psychologist. And so a few weeks ago, Rose decided it was time.
R: Alright. This is test number two-and-a-half a guess.
KM: We sent Rose an audio recorder and she Rose agreed to herself talking to her mom, for the first time, about her depression.
R: I am having a seat and will be narrating the next minute of my life.
KM: Listen in, after the break.
MH: This week’s story is part of a collaboration we’re doing with our friends at NPR. We found Rose, because a few weeks back, we got on their Facebook page -- and asked for your stories about how you’ve struggled with mental health.
A story we heard again and again was that people who are children of immigrants, like Rose, have a really tough time talking to their parents about what’s going on in their heads.
RAMYA: Hi my name is Ramya
DARREN: Hi my name is Darren
ALBERTO: My name is Alberto D.
MH: Sometimes it’s a language problem.
DARREN: My father is from El Salvador. My mom is from Guatemala.
This is Darren, from Davis, California. He struggles with depression.
DARREN: At times I’ve tried to tell them my symptoms in Spanish. I am not really sure if something like “no quiero vivir” means the same thing as “I don’t want to live” in English. I don’t know if it has the same impact because there is this cultural divide.
MH: Other listeners worry that if they talk to their parents about their mental health, they’ll sound selfish.
ALBERTO: My dad was an orphan, and my mother grew up on a ranch in Mexico. And their struggles in coming to the United States are just, they’re much more tangible, and much more physical. Whereas my struggles in the United States growing up was just kind of like dealing with depression.
MH: Even if you haven’t faced a mental health problem, or your parents were born here, there’s probably still a conversation about your health that you’re not having, because you just can’t face it. We want to hear about it. Call us at 803-820-WNYC. That’s 803-820-9692. Or leave a message or find us on Facebook at Only Human Podcast.
MH: This is Only Human, I’m Mary Harris, I’m back here with our reporter Kenny Malone. Hey Kenny.
KM: Hey Mary.
MH: So this week we’re talking to Rose, who is about to have this conversation with her mom that she’s been avoiding for years about how she has struggled with depression for almost half of her life. What happened when she shows up with a tape recorder to talk to her mom?
KM: Well, I guess we should probably say here, Rose had told her mom that she was doing this radio story and that she wanted to talk to her mom in general about mental health. And it was during that conversation that Rose planned to bring up her own depression. A few weeks ago Rose drove to her parents’ house, she was going to stay for the weekend, so she brought her cat Theodore.
MH: She left the cat in the car?
KM: No, no, no. She takes the cat out of the car.
R: Come on, (meow) let’s go.
KM: She goes inside and that is when she has the psych up conversation with her younger brother, who, by the way, he’s 18.
R: Do you think this is a bad idea?
R: 50-percent it’s a bad idea?
MH: Which isn’t so much a psych up conversation.
KM: Yeah, it doesn’t work very well.
R: You’re supposed to make me feel better. It really could be flip a coin because I have no idea how it’s going to go.
KM: So they have that conversation. And eventually Rose sits down on the couch with her mom. Starts the recorder.
R: Okay, this is Rose. I’m here with mom. So, mama, will you introduce yourself.
SELMA: My name is Selma, I live in Texas. I move from Pakistan the last 20 years.
KM: Selma’s not as comfortable in English as she is in Urdu, but very kindly did this conversation in English. She’s more or less a stay-at-home mom. She does some catering. Volunteers at a school library...
R: What do you like to read?
S: Romantic novels. And drama.
R: Do you like to watch romantic TV and movies?
R: Okay, um, so the reason I wanted to talk to you today was to find out about your perception of mental illness and mental health.
KM: Rose asked her mom, for the first time, what her mom thought about Rose going into psychology.
MH: What’d she say?
KM: She said --
S: (sigh) Mm.
R: (laughs) complicated feelings?
S: Yes, I miss my daughter. She doesn’t watch with me Indian movies. And I want to, she come with me and watch Indian movies.
R: Okay, that’s fair, school has very much taken over my life and interfered with my ability to watch three to four hour Bollywood Movies on the weekend with you.
KM: So after about 20 or 30 minutes, Rose starts to realize she’s avoiding the tougher part of this conversation. And she starts to tip-toe up to her confession.
R: So what about, I know you’ve seen family that’s depressed. You’ve seen the symptoms like being cranky, sleeping a lot, not eating that much. Those kind of things. Did you ever notice any of that in me when I was living here, or even now?
R: You never noticed any of that?
S: I don’t think so you have any of this problem.
R: Well [crying] it actually has been a problem for me.
S: I know, but I think so this is not big problem.
R: So, you’ve noticed those things but it’s not a big problem.
R: Okay, um. Well I’m very nervous to share this with you and I haven’t shared it with you because I didn’t want you to be worried. But I have been seeing a counselor for three years because I sometimes struggle with depression. How do you feel about that?
S: I feel very bad and shameless. She don’t want to share with me. You lived alone all night. Nobody talked to you.
R: But you know that, I don’t think it’s because I live alone. Because I felt this way in high school when I lived here. This isn’t brand new. I don’t know. I don’t see that as the problem. But I can understand why you would think that being isolated would cause something like depression. What are you thinking?
R: You promise you’re not mad.
S: No, I’m not mad.
R: So after this conversation what, if anything, do you think is going to change?
S: You move here.
R: I am not moving here. I think you know that.
KM: That’s it. That’s basically where the conversation ends. On a pretty nice note. But, when Rose emailed me the audio recordings she had made. There was a second sound file. And it was a whole other conversation.
R: Okay, I’ve just talked to Mama and I’m feeling drained.
KM: It was Rose venting to her younger brother.
R: But she played it cool, and then as soon as I turned off the recorder she hit me on the arm and said, “Why wouldn’t you tell me that, we’ve had how many times do I tell you.” What was hardest for me is then she said, “Like you just said on the recorder that you have depression and that you go to counseling, and people are going to hear this. And you shouldn’t have done that, you shouldn’t have said that. Because now all of the aunties and our community are going to say things and it’s going to be harder now for you to get married.”
R: And like, I don’t care what so-and-so auntie says about me seeing a counselor. Like I honestly could not care less about that. But I can’t help but think that she also feels ashamed and it’s not just the aunties. Like this is a super personal thing for me to share. Obviously with her, but for all the people who are going to listen to it and for her to say: People are going to judge you and this is a bad idea. I think that sucks. Like this is something that clearly is not easy for me and something I’ve thought a lot about, and I was hoping for a little more support.
B: That’s the way they were raised. So just deal with it.
KM: “Just deal with it.” He says.
R: (Laughs) Thanks for your insight. I just hope it never comes up again, honestly. I guess we’ll find out.
B: On the next episode!
R: On the next episode. Stay tuned.
MH: So when you listened to this, were you surprised?
KM: If Rose was worried about having this conversation and blowing up all this progress she’d made with her mom, it was that bad. Because there she was, I mean, in her childhood home, crying over the same kinds of fights her mom used to have that, boiled down, were about her feeling like she was disappointing her mom, or her mom being ashamed of her.
MH: Did you like call her right away. Like oh my gosh are you okay? I’m curious how you responded? Cause you’re part of this too.
KM: Hey Rose, can you hear us?
R: I can.
KM: So after hearing that conversation I set up another chat with Rose.
KM: This is about, what, like a week and a half after the conversation with your mom? Two weeks?
R: Maybe a little bit more yeah.
KM: Rose told me that it had gone, like, just horribly.
R: It was a rough night. I just felt exhausted and I felt like I couldn’t get past the, “well, what did I even get out of that”. That seemed like a helpful thing to do beforehand. But now that it’s happened I don’t feel any better. In fact I feel worse about the whole thing. I feel like she feels worse, and I just felt really drained and exhausted and that didn’t seem worth it, and what did I really get out of that?
KM: As planned, Rose stayed that night at her parents’ house, she says, dinner was very awkward that night. She went to bed and she was exhausted.
KM: I mean, you very explicitly in your conversation with your brother say: I hope she never brings this up again. Like, I hope we never have to talk about this again.
R: I just didn’t want to get into it again, and I was worried that she was really going to harp on the moving home. And if that’s what was going to come up is moving home or getting married every time the issue came up I just didn’t, I couldn’t. I did not have the patience for it.
KM: And, so Rose thought is there any way I can undo what I’ve just done?
R: Yeah, that definitely was a thought of just, of should I just lose this recording? What happens if I back out?
R: Oh yeah. That was a very real consideration.
KM: You could have. You could very easily have deleted it. Why did you not do that?
R: I’m really not sure. But you’re welcome.
KM: But then, Rose says, something interesting started to happen. Her mom didn’t bring up the conversation, per se, but started asking these little tiny questions.
R: Practical things like --
KM: You know, when did your depression start? Rose would answer and then the conversation would be over. Maybe 5, 6 hours later --
R: How long did you see a therapist? When did you start?
KM: And maybe 5, 6, hours later --
R: How much is this costing you?
KM: And then Rose’s mom started asking these deeper questions. Like wondering about what her role was in this.
R: What could I have done differently. One of the things that she brought up was, is this because I couldn’t teach you how to do makeup? And she, like, really launched into the -- that’s just not, nobody taught me how to do it. And I didn’t know that girls were supposed to get their eyebrows done. And I didn’t know kids were making fun of you for it. And I didn’t do it until I got engaged. And just felt like she was being really apologetic and explaining that -- I just didn’t understand. Like I didn’t understand that was the environment you were in. I didn’t have personal experience to relate to you. I didn’t know that was such a big deal for you.
KM: Rose says, it sounds like small stuff, but they were these huge moments where she just felt trapped in a vice being squeezed on one side by the social pressures of her school, and being squeezed on the other side by the cultural pressures of her family. And she thought her mom was totally oblivious to that.
R: And to hear that, even though it’s ten years later, has been huge for me. And it felt like she was coming from a place of wanting to understand better rather than judging it.
MH: So she sounds kind of happy that she had this conversation. But I guess I wonder she’s getting her PhD in psychology. She’s going to be asking people to have conversations like this as her job. What does she take away from all of it as a therapist?
KM: It’s a complicated question. Because I don’t know that Rose knows how well the whole thing went. But what this made her think a lot about, she told me, is that the whole premise of this conversation with her mom: sitting down, putting the whole thing on the table, and sorting through the problem from there, is kind of at the heart of a lot what she’s studying. That in practice is very different from the idealized version of how this all works.
R: Where you have this one-hour long conversation and then it’s beautiful and then it’s over. It’s never going to be like that, as much as, I think we picture that to happen in our head. I’ve had years to come to terms with this knowledge about myself and I gave her, what, maybe an hour-long conversation and then expected her to, at the end of it, be totally understanding and calm and collected about it. Which wasn’t fair on my part. And so, if a difficult conversation that’s exhausting and draining and full of pain and regret can lead to a little bit more reflection on my part, as well as my mom’s part, I shift towards it seeming more worth it.
KM: It’s all very messy.
R: It is very messy. And I feel like I’m still, I’m still reconciling clearly. I don’t know how I feel about it. I don’t know if it was a good idea or if this is a huge mistake. But I think that’s, I guess that’s the message here. It’s that it’s not going to be neat package of a conversation, it’s a process and that’s, as my brother would say: You just have to deal with it.
Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios.
Our team includes Elaine Chen, Paige Cowett, Jillian Weinberger, Julia Longoria, Kenny Malone, Fred Mogul, Ariana Tobin, Ankita Rao, Lisa Rapaport and Amanda Aronczyk. Our technical director is Michael Raphael. Our executive producer is Leital Molad.
Original music in this episode composed by David P. Kruska (CREWS - kuh)
Jim Schachter is the Vice President for news at WNYC.
I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you next week.