My journey with mental health has always been a part of my identity. When I was nine years old, my parents divorced, leaving me and my younger brothers with our father. Because my mother had left, I was pushed into a co-parent and caretaker role, causing me to grow up very quickly.

During this time, my father took advantage of his new freedom by spending his days working and partying with his friends, often leaving me and my brothers alone for long periods of time. When I was violated by a family member at age eleven, I felt even more alone, confused, and hopeless.

The origins of my internal struggles and cultural conflict

I didn’t speak to anyone about happened to me and held all of my feelings inside until the beginning of my thirteenth year. That’s when I began to act out. Until this point, I had fulfilled and abided by all of the Korean cultural and gender expectations that were required of me; this in addition to being the oldest daughter of the family. I came home right after school, cleaned the house, and was my younger brothers’ primary caretaker.

As I entered adolescence, my desire for independence quickly began to clash with my father’s strict rules. When I began to question him, my father reacted in the traditional Korean manner by ruling with a heavy hand. After having years of freedom, this authoritarian approach caused me to rebel further.

tackling stigma in the Asian CommunityI began running away from home in middle school. A part of Korean culture was to corporally punish their children, however, when I felt the punishments were becoming too abusive, I left. I constantly ran away and spent most of my adolescent years living on the couches of friends. I left my father’s house permanently when I was fifteen. 

As a result of my truancy and my family’s attempts at helping me “start over”, I ended up attending six different high schools.

The next couple of years, I suffered from severe depression, which made me feel worthless and suicidal. I spiraled downwards, as I abused substances and alcohol, dropped out of school, and struggled with an eating disorder. I leaned on my friends and boyfriends and acted out in angry outbursts whenever I faced my parents.

I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and was not given the space to talk to anyone in my family about my internal struggle.

Intergenerational trauma and mental health

My mother had come back into my life during this time, however, I was too engulfed in my emotions and rebellion at this point; my parents were at a loss in how to deal with me. Although they had been somewhat acculturated through attending school in the United States, their background was traditionally Korean and the topic of mental health was never discussed.

Looking back, I realize now that they didn’t understand what was going on with me. Deep down, they were probably scared and worried but only knew how to express their feelings through anger, harsh berating, and physical punishment.

In Korean culture, to rebel and disrespect your parents in an outright manner such as this was considered disgraceful. I felt ashamed of myself, yet angry and felt that I would never be able to prove my worth to my family after everything that I had done. We went back and forth in a vicious cycle of me running away, them reacting by telling me how much I shamed them, and me creating bigger walls to shut them out as I drowned in my depression.

Looking back, I realize now that they didn’t understand what was going on with me. Deep down, they were probably scared and worried but only knew how to express their feelings through anger, harsh berating, and physical punishment.

A huge factor as to why my parents reacted to my behavior in this way was because my father had a sister who committed a serious crime when I was a young child and as a result, spent twenty years in prison. Her actions devastated our family, and she was often brought up in our family as the example of “what we should not end up as”. I found out later in life that she also had struggled with severe mental health issues.

Due to the cultural taboo around the topic of mental health, her issues were not spoken about amongst my father and his family, until similar issues came back up in the next generation through my experiences. Because my parents were not educated on this topic, they did not see the link between our behaviors. Instead, they only saw their fears that the same thing would happen to me.

As a last ditch effort, my father sent me away to an all girls’ Christian reform school in another state. In being away from my friends, family, and monitored 24/7, I was able to detox, stabilize, and reflect on my life. I entered the school with freshman credits but through their independent study program, I was able to finish high school in a little over one year. It was the first time I felt that I had accomplished anything and the process allowed me to feel like I could start over if I wanted to.

When I came back, I worked multiple jobs, found my own place, and supported myself. I had freedom from my parents, however, still struggled with depression due to my many unresolved issues. I continued to abuse drugs and alcohol and gravitated towards abusive men. When one of my boyfriends called me out for my risky and self-harming behavior, I saved up my money and began to attend therapy.

Recovery and healing through overcoming obstacles

I also wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t worthless and could accomplish what seemed to be impossible. My depression had me believing that everyone perceived me as a failure that would continue to waste away my life. Through small wins and accomplishments, I began to slowly heal.

I spent the next ten years exploring my issues and rebuilding myself through the coaching and support of my therapist who I saw weekly. I truly believe that therapy saved my life. It was a difficult and long road, however, I continued to push myself by working towards my goals by attending classes at community college while working nights to support myself.

I wanted to go to school so that I could help other at-risk adolescents and young adults who struggled the way I did. The next few years in community college were a whirlwind that went by, while I barely slept while attending school full-time, and also worked full-time at a late night waitressing job. When I received the acceptance letter into U.C. Berkeley, I cried.

I wish I could say my problems went away with that letter however, I continued to struggle with self-esteem issues. I know others call it “the impostor syndrome”, a feeling of not owning your own success or negating it in your mind in some way. Despite my hard work, I wondered if I deserved to be at such a prestigious school or I had gotten in through luck.

For the first year, I fought through each class while dealing with severe anxiety and panic attacks. My therapist worked with me and my schedule which gave me space each week to reflect and work through my self-doubts, anxieties, and fears of failure. When I finally graduated, I felt that this process allowed me to finally believe in myself and I truly felt proud of myself for pushing through all of the different obstacles.  

My relationship with my family also began to rebuild throughout these years as they witnessed my attempts at improving my life and working through my issues through therapy. When I first began to see my therapist, they were uncomfortable and skeptical. However, over time I began to see their perceptions of mental health gradually shift. I was able to earn my parents’ approval and respect through my independence and educational accomplishments, which allowed me the space to provide knowledge and education on mental illness and the importance of maintaining mental health.

I began to see concrete changes in my parents with the biggest accomplishments being my father acknowledging the importance of mental health and my mother seeking out her own therapist. This was a step for my family because it laid out the foundation for open communication surrounding a once taboo topic. By the time my brother had his first psychotic break, my parents were a little more open to the topic of mental illness. It wasn’t perfect, but they tried, and my mother was eventually able to help my brother get the support and care that he needed.

Mental health stigma in Korean-American communities

Korean-American communities can be very unique and complex due to the diversities in immigrant generations and levels of acculturation that vary within each family. Typically, Korean communities are very tight-knit with traditional cultural norms maintained to a certain extent, which can affect how mental health stigma is perceived and whether or not it is discussed openly.

With the disturbingly high suicide rates and prevalence of mental illnesses within Korean populations, mental health is a topic that needs more awareness and psychoeducation in Korean communities. In my situation, my parents were bi-cultural, yet initially still showed resistance to the topic of mental health.

Other times, the cultural conflict can be more severe, making it even more difficult to discuss these issues. Too often, the stigma surrounding the topic of mental illness can cause individuals to associate their internal struggles with feelings of shame and isolation. In relation, the lack of community support available is minimal compared to the actual need.

I would love to see Korean individuals reduce stigma in their communities by increasing awareness through sharing their experiences and providing psychoeducation. It may be difficult but not impossible, and this kind impact on Korean communities can work on shifting traditional misperceptions about mental health towards creating further spaces for both individual and community support.  

After years of healing…

After this long journey, I am now in an MSW program at UCLA working towards my passions and the long-term goal of supporting at-risk adolescents and young adults, especially those who are living with mental illness. There was a time in my life where I thought my life was worth nothing and that I was worth nothing, and it drives me to know that there are others in need of support who continue to experience similar feelings and feel as alone as I did.

It took ten years of therapy and many roadblocks on the way, but I finally feel that I am in a place where I can look back proudly at all that I’ve worked through and feel confident enough to use my experiences to help others. I have faith that through our personal stories we can provide the support and hope that others may need in their darkest and most lonely times.

Kachel Rang is the alias of a Painted Brain intern and also a graduate student at UCLA’s Masters in Social Work program.

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