Stigma, shame and self-doubt are barriers many face in their mental health journey. Within immigrant communities and communities of color, cultural, religious and familial norms can heighten those barriers. Among recently-arrived Latin American immigrants, for example, there is a 26% prevalence of depression, three times that of the U.S. population.
At Guild, we believe one way to confront stigmas, break down barriers, and foster greater empathy and understanding is through sharing stories of challenges and progress.
One such story is of Daniel Diaz, a first generation Mexican-American and neurodivergent individual who has lived with depression and anxiety. An ex-investment banker-turned corporate strategist, Daniel is currently working as a Summer Associate with Bain & Company as he pursues his M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is also a Guild board member, passionate about ensuring all people feel empowered to live up to their potential. He believes as we do that to empower people is to empower change. Meet Daniel.
What has your mental health journey looked like?
My experience with mental health is a personal one. I’m always striving to maintain the progress that I’ve achieved in my life to ensure that everyone around me, myself included, is able live up to their full potential.
Ironically, as someone who grew up with depression and anxiety, it took me a long-time before I could recognize its telltale signs. I came from a low resource background where depression and anxiety were not considered real. I didn’t know how to manage it because I was never taught how to feel it. Rather, it was something that I came face to face with in college when I got to a breaking point, was burned out, and had no other choice but to address it. But where do you start when you don’t have the language or tools to even point you in the right direction?
The issue is particularly prevalent in first-generation Latino communities where mental health is something that is not talked about. It’s something that gets swept under the rug as a shameful secret. But for someone like myself trying to navigate corporate America and upward mobility, having emotional self-awareness and managing my mental wellness has been critical to my success. As I started to work hard and realize success in my personal and professional endeavors, I also realized that there were a lot of things that I had to unpack when it came to my belief system so that I could transcend into these new types of spaces that corporate America is. Chief among them was my anxiety.
The truth is, I experience a lot of anxiety when trying to perform in high achieving spaces, and I didn’t always know how to deal with it. I would always feel very ashamed of my anxiety and didn’t let anyone know what I was going through. Even if they wanted to help me, they couldn’t. Coming from where I came from, I was taught to suppress my emotions. I was taught that my feelings could be a deep and shameful character flaw that others shouldn’t see. There’s a lot of minimization of mental illness traits which makes it difficult to characterize what you’re feeling and label it what it is: Something that millions of other people are struggling with. Today, I recognize that there is no need to be ashamed, and I embrace this part of me. Although I wished I had learned this lesson sooner, it took a lot of intentionality and hard work to unpack the faulty beliefs as an adult, to understand myself better, and to understand that there is large component of mental health that is genetic or inherited. As they say, it ran in the family until it ran into me.
How has your identity as a first generation Mexican-American impacted your mental health care journey?
Family, community, and religion are all important factors that shape how I view my cultural identity as a first generation Mexican American. But oftentimes these pieces of me are not in perfect harmony with each other and can get in the way of my personal peace. In fact, they often exacerbate my anxiety and depression.
We’re taught not to get too close to our emotions, we’re taught to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps – but that doesn’t always serve us. Mantras like ‘Ponte las pilas’ or ‘Si se puede’ are overgeneralizations for ‘just try harder’. But sometimes it’s not about trying harder. It’s also about taking a step back and looking inward before you can make progress outwardly. In the past I would conflate my inability to conform to certain corporate environments (especially Wall Street) with a personal failure of some kind. But now I see it for what it was – those environments just weren’t a fit for me (and that’s ok). What’s for you will be for you.
In the Mexican American community, we are also taught to be machismo. For anyone born male, there is a huge overemphasis on being an overly masculine person, and you’re glorified for being able to suppress your emotions. As a sensitive individual, that ideology has always conflicted deeply with me as a person. It used to affect how I viewed my worth as a person. Because of this, I used to associate my accomplishments with my self-worth, and there’s a danger when you conflate the two. It can lead to low self-esteem. It took a lot of work to recalibrate my self-worth. In order to ground my identity, I now focus on what I value as a human being, who I surround myself with, what I love about them, and how I am unique.
What barriers to mental health and care do Mexican immigrants and their descendants face?
When you think about the trauma that the community has had to endure, it makes sense. People come to this country with the idea that they’re going to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they’re going to make something of this opportunity, the American Dream. A lot of times the conditions they’re departing from in Mexico are not great, they’re just trying to survive. When you come from that mentality, when you’re holding on to survival, the luxury of checking in with yourself and checking in with your emotions is not something that makes sense in that survival mindset.
Especially in a place like America, where it’s not the most hospitable to immigrants. There’s not a safety net. You really are not supported. That marries in with the scarcity mindset that many immigrants have. Shame plays a big role. Cultural expectation that we can just snap out of what we’re feeling.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention religion’s role in the Mexican-American community. Religion is often the outlet for someone’s mental health needs. Which is great: It can be a conduit for meditation, for affirmation. I think the problem comes when we become too dependent on a prayer or religion solving our problems, specifically our mental health problems. And that’s so embedded in the culture.
Language and experiential differences can also be barriers, especially across generations. One generation lives in Mexico with no running water or electricity and while they uproot to America, they carry with them this survival mindset. For those of us who were born here, subsequent generations, there’s just a really big gap in terms of how to start talking about mental health, and how to start broaching the subject in a really community-based way. And then I think we get siloed where the older generation is at church dealing with their mental health that way, while Gen Z is on TikTok. It makes it difficult to find a middle ground, to work and heal together.
What opportunities do you see within the Mexican immigrant community to foster conversations around mental health?
Specifically with the Latin culture, through religion, through community, through partnership, we can gently have conversations for and with each of our generations in a way that brings them to the table. Making sure we ask questions in a way that doesn’t call out a specific person but rather celebrates the community and the strength that brought us here to have the conversation. Collectivism and family are such big priorities and beliefs in Mexican-American culture, they have to be part of the solution.
We also need to remind the community that “Who you are is different from what you do.” Creating accepting, soft spaces and existences can, over time, lead to change.
What can organizations like Guild do to support this progress?
It’s creating a community-level response. Roots in the church can lend credibility to some communities, like the Latino or Mexican-American community. Building partnerships in community – at churches, at workplaces – to bring the mental health conversation into safe, trusted places.
Reaching different parts of the community, by generation. Identify where members of community find their community. Like older generations go to church whereas younger generations might be in digital forums. Allow conversation to flow in those spaces. Give vocabulary. Name traumas. Build language.
Where are you already seeing hope and progress?
It’s really great to see younger generations coming into their own and defining for themselves what mental health means to them. Particularly with younger generations being on social media and accessing digital resources, I think it’s pretty clear that those resources are liberating them before shame can settle in. and i think that teaches them how to learn, how to be more flexible with mental health and wellness.
We’re so grateful to Daniel for taking the time to share his personal experience and wisdom with us. As our CEO Julie Bluhm always says, “When one person has the courage to share their story, it gives others permission to do the same.” To support our work breaking down stigma and barriers for people of all cultural backgrounds, make a gift to Guild today.