My culture — Dominican culture — prevents my community from recognizing mental illnesses among the women.

My family describes certain aunts as “nervous,” instead of possibly dealing with anxiety, or the great-aunt as “very organized and particular,” instead of someone who might have OCD; even the cousin who likely has depression is just “always sad and alone.” My family often takes the easier path of dismissing mental illness as a personality flaw. Very few women in my family ever pursue therapy; in fact, therapy is not even openly discussed as an option.

Despite the cultural barriers that stifle women of color from seeking and accepting professional help, we still carve out spaces in our communities to build each other up and find support.

When I started therapy this past semester, I noticed the extent to which my culture held me back from taking advantage of the space. I struggled to name and claim my depressive episodes and panic attacks by avoiding words like anxiety and depression and using humor to deflect. I was afraid that once I claimed these identities, I would join the women in my family with “personality flaws” and be isolated because of my mental health.

I also purposely withheld information because I was trained by my culture to think that problems should be kept and solved within the family — strangers didn’t need to know our business. As a minority community, my family constantly deals with judgements, prejudice and different forms of oppression — having a mental illness is viewed as yet another way that other communities could judge us. For this reason, I was raised not to tell people outside of my culture about my “intense feelings” and “character flaws,” but rather I am fine and improving. Mental health is thought to be best handled by my community, but it doesn’t even have the tools to address mental health care properly.

Additionally, therapy was challenging because it required me to put work into myself – an action at odds with my culture. In my experiences, my culture expects women to be selfless and entirely focused on improving everyone else around them, which made the process of focusing on myself difficult. The experience made me realize the ways that my culture failed me — and many other women of color — in never giving me the language and validation I needed in order to freely work through my emotions and trauma.

Though my culture failed to give me the language I needed, it has also taught me how women of color work to overcome these failures by creating emotional spaces and validation for ourselves.

Women in my family often do not have access to formal therapy sessions because of financial limitations and many being busy as working mothers. Formal therapy sessions also are not culturally accepted as a way to combat mental health issues. Instead, the women in my family created discussion, chisme, circles discussing daily life and gossip during family events, encouraged long phone calls that involved informal mental health check-ins and repeated words of validation, and offered each other post-dinner cafecitos to prolong conversations that came after a large meal.

At Georgetown, I have healed from finding community with strong women of color that also build informal spaces for healing. This includes lunch conversations on the couch of the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access to impromptu check-ins and family-style dinners with friends. I actively sought community with women of color around me, including mentors and peers on campus. The interactions reminded me of my community and provided me the space to recenter myself with my goals and aspirations while also giving me the opportunity to debrief and process my emotions.

Women of color in both my home life and on Georgetown’s campus carve spaces in which we can build each other up. I have learned to value the lessons from the women of color before me, to appreciate those currently supporting me and to share that love to uplift the community as a whole. They overcame the barriers placed in front of them to create spaces for themselves through timeless cultural practices that I hope to instill in my daily life.

Yet as a community, we must still actively advocate for the acceptance of mental health resources and work against the aspects of culture shoving mental health aside. We should support each other in seeking help, advocate for more accessible resources and uplift those who need support.

Omaris Caceres is a junior in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. WOC Wisdom appears online every other Thursday.

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