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One Call Away

The week before spring break was one of those dreaded hell weeks at Yale, when the slippery slush forced everyone to hibernate, seats in Starr were scarce, and my 5-minute sanity break from midterms was spent idly scrolling through my phone while How I Met Your Mother played in the suite.

“Your mom misses you. Call her soon.”

I was surprised to receive this text from my dad. Verbal expression of emotion isn’t really a thing in my family, and I had never heard my parents say “miss you” or “love you”. My immigrant parents demonstrate affection in a much fiercer way. As an example, upon hearing a persistent cough when I came home for Thanksgiving freshman year, Mom decided I had bronchitis and yelled at me for not going to Yale Health, then proceeded to drown me in herbal cough syrup.

I gave my nonexistent 10-page paper a good defiant stare, not really in the mood for another one of Tiger Mom’s lectures about sleeping more, partying less, getting into med school, marrying a nice Chinese boy, and securing a nice retirement in the tropics. But my guilty conscience reminded me that I hadn’t called home in weeks, so I dialed.

After a few rings, Mom was on the line. I mumbled “Hi Mom” into the screen, and heard no response. I repeated a few times, but she seemed to sit weakly on her bed with an empty expression. I asked my two suitemates if Yale Secure was malfunctioning again or Facetime was just frozen, then continued repeating “Hi Mom” 20 times. Mom would not talk to me.

Eventually, Dad came in the room, and I frustratedly asked him what was going on. He said Mom had just returned from visiting my grandma’s grave in China last week. She had been experiencing insomnia, which at first they thought was just stress, but it got so bad that she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with severe clinical depression. Her condition was so unstable that Dad took off work to take care of her at home. She once hid in the car for 2 whole hours so she wouldn’t have to talk to our neighbor. She considered quitting her job, but worried about putting more financial burden on my dad. Dad knew that he couldn’t take care of her at home forever, so if her health worsened, she might have to go stay with Grandpa in China.

I was shocked. How did I not know about any of this?

After I stepped away from my concerned suitemates and sat shivering in the courtyard, I felt horrible. I felt selfish that I had no clue this mess was going on at home, that my mom was suffering and I didn’t even care to check. I should have called, texted, done something to show my gratitude for everything my parents have done to support me, yet the only time I called was to tell them I won’t be going home this summer because of my a-cappella tour and research project. I had prioritized my own work, travels, and other pursuits over the wellbeing of my family. I didn’t know what I could do to help, but I called Mom every day to ask her how she was doing. Some days, the antidepressant medication worked, and she’d have the energy to speak a few words. Most days, the meds didn’t work. The day I left for my a cappella group’s spring break tour, Mom left for China to stay under the care of my grandpa. I didn’t get to see her before she left.

Thankfully, over the past few months, my mom’s health has recovered steadily with the support of her family and friends in China. I’ve also reflected on my mother’s story, educated myself on the issue, and gained a deeper awareness for mental health. Growing up with my grandparents in China, I heard about my mom through Grandma’s bedtime stories. Mom was always known in town for her intelligence, and she immigrated to the US with my dad to pursue a graduate degree. As much as I admired my mother, Grandma’s stories never stopped me from wondering why I lived across the globe from my parents for six years.

I found some answers in sixth grade, when I moved back to the US. At school, I was placed into the same ESL class as my younger brother. At home, I spent days deciphering The Berenstain Bears under a bald lightbulb in my parents’ apartment. One day at lunch, after a few boys teased “ching-ching-chong, go back to China,” I realized I was afraid. I had only gotten a taste of my mom’s struggle, her American Dream tainted by financial instability, language barriers, and cultural clash.

The summer before I left for Yale, Mom told me more of her story. She had suffered from postpartum depression after my brother was born, an illness so crippling that she gave up her study and was forced to put me in my grandparents’ care. Traditional Chinese culture viewed mental illness as shame, and at the time, my relatives understood little about depression. Without a social support network or access to care, Mom endured pain and loneliness that no mother should go through. The fact that she had to hide her illness from relatives and friends reveals the heavy stigma that renders patients afraid of seeking help.

While my mom is recovering from her relapse, millions of patients around the globe still suffer, their mental illnesses going untreated due to stigma and lack of resources. In China alone, according to a 2016 Lancet study, 36.9 million years of healthy life will be lost to mental illness by 2025. This makes me angry, frustrated, and determined to act.

Last year, when my city’s Department of Health formed a student-led initiative, I felt compelled to propose and launch a mental health campaign with a team of 10 other teenagers. Initially, I had no idea how much resistance the campaign would face. One adult at our community meeting insisted that kids cannot have mental health problems. My friend prepared a poetry performance on depression, but her mom told her to change the “disgusting” topic. My neighboring school district banned a book that discussed mental health, even after the tragic suicide of a 12-year-old student. These challenges taught me that stigma against mental illness is real and will take persistence to overcome.

Rather than feeling discouraged, my team worked to implement idealistic goals with realistic strategies. With the help of a marketing company, we designed logos, fact sheets, resource packets, t-shirts, stress balls, and purple wristbands. By tabling at schools, nonprofit events, and local fairs from April to June, we distributed mental health resources to over 450 community members.

I want to help patients like my mother get better, faster, by combining efforts in neuroscience research and mental health advocacy at Yale. After teaching Introduction to Mental Health at New Haven public schools last fall, I realized that maybe all it takes to end stigma is to start a conversation and lend an ear. As John Donne wrote, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” We are not alone. We can help each other process rather than suppress the negative emotions that make us human. Remind loved ones how much you care, and love tirelessly. When I did, even Tiger Mom said “I love you too”.


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