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When I was a kid, I genuinely thought that my mom had a weekly appointment to shrink her head.
She already has a very small head, so this was incredibly confusing to me. It was only when my mom took me to see a therapist myself at around 10 years old that she explained what she meant by a “head shrink,” and thus began my journey to understanding what this therapy thing was all about and why my mom, brother and I all needed to do it.
While their upbringings were incredibly different from one another, both of my parents’ childhood experiences with the stigma around mental illness caused them to raise my brother and me fully embracing the normalcy of conversations around mental health.
My mom was raised as a Christian Scientist, and any kind of medicine, including psychiatry, was completely shunned in their household. As she explains it, the general attitude of her parents growing up was “God will fix our problems, so no need talking about them.” Needless to say, God did not just “fix” my mother’s depression, and instead, she had to find therapy and psychiatry on her own after leaving home, later vowing never to have her own children feel shamed for not always smiling.
[Related: Understanding What Causes Stigma]
My dad grew up in a poor Jewish family in New York with parents who didn’t talk to their children about much of anything, let alone about mental health. His parents were both immigrants from the former Soviet Union and were focused only on keeping a roof over their children’s heads and much less about the quality of life happening underneath it. While my dad himself remains frustratingly stoic regarding his own mental health – he is the only person in my family who, to my knowledge, has not seen a mental health professional despite having been through a lot of trauma in his life – he has always played the role of a family therapist, making sure that my brother and I know we can call him to talk through our feelings about anything (he calls this Kornberg Yack Therapy – don’t ask why).
It was only after leaving home and talking to friends about their own experiences with mental health that I realized how lucky I am to have grown up in a household where we could freely discuss our feelings and where there was no shame around needing to get help. Because I grew up freely discussing mental health, I am more comfortable analyzing and digging into difficult feelings, both for myself and in my close relationships.
It is easy for me to forget that not everybody in my life is as comfortable discussing these difficult subjects as I am – my husband, for example, who grew up in a family for whom mental health is a tremendous taboo, does not always love my propensity for constantly analyzing our problems.
My hope is that my own children can feel even freer in ridding themselves of stigmas around mental illness and that younger generations can feel empowered knowing that there is no shame around needing help.