Thrive on Campus//

I Was Always Normal: A Clashing of Two Mental Health Cultures

I expected college to be a life-changing experience. What I didn't expect was for my understanding of health to be completely redefined.

Image Source/Getty Images
Image Source/Getty Images

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

I have always considered myself to be an American. 100 percent red, white, and blue through-and-through. Even when I was younger and attended a school where the vast majority of my classmates looked nothing like me, I never thought to question my identity as an American. My friends and I frequented the same movie theater together, ordered the same things at Steak and Shake, and never disagreed on the undeniable truth that nothing could ever beat a stop at the ice cream parlor on the way home. However, I was not oblivious to the differences that existed. While my friends went to church on Sundays, my mom took us to the only Buddhist temple in town — a 40-minute drive away. While my friends could never wait to open their presents on Christmas day, I could never wait to receive the lì xì on Lunar New Year’s Day. While my friends donated their old belongings to Goodwill, my mom kept a stock of everything I grew out of that was “for those who need it back in Vietnam.” I knew these things made me different, but I never thought that they were anything more than superficial differences. Sure, my family did some things made us stand out, but deep down, I still believed that I was just as American as any of my friends.

Although I did not realize it at the time, mental health was a topic that was rarely discussed during my upbringing. My mom was a nurse, which made her perfectly suited to be especially conscious of our family’s physical health. She made sure that I got enough sleep, pushed me to spend time being active outside, and was careful that every meal prepared was nutritionally balanced. However, any discussion around mental health was notably absent from the household. Simply put, mental health was taboo. Whenever the topic did come up, it was mainly negative and tended to label any mental health struggle as abnormal. I grew up in a dual environment where my physical health was of the utmost importance, while my mental health was, at best, an afterthought. All through my childhood and teenage years, I never experienced anything that challenged this. I was a picture of physical health, and the concept of being abnormal because of my mental health didn’t seem to apply to me. I was normal. 

It was not until I came to college that I realized how profound the differences of my upbringing were. To say that the environment I entered when coming to college was different would be an understatement. Like most freshmen, going to college was the start of an entirely new experience. My friends, learning habits, and lifestyle were just a few aspects of the everyday that changed. Likewise, the kind of space the university and its student body created for mental health was vastly different from what I was used to. Here, one’s mental health is not considered separate from one’s physical health. Here, the university provides resources that caters to both the physical and mental health needs of its students in a manner that fosters overall well-being.

The mental health resources (e.g. therapy and support groups) and especially the dialogue used to create social norms of their use as part of a healthy lifestyle, were completely new to me. All of it challenged what I had known for most of my life, and instead of embracing it, I unfortunately did not think much about it. After all, I was perfectly healthy physically. My upbringing had trained me to believe that to use these resources, I would have to be abnormal. While I recognized that these resources had their merits, I believed that there was no way any of it would apply to me. I was normal.

I finished my freshman year without much of a problem. However, as my sophomore year ended, and junior year began, I had lost most of my steam and my mental health began to suffer tremendously. For most of my life, my academics were how I defined not only my success, but my entire identity. As my grades began to slide, I fell deeper into a darker mental state. In turn, this made it harder to improve my academic performance, and things began to spiral out of control. I found myself questioning my self-worth and the reason why I was doing any of this. While I knew that something was wrong, I still felt like I was not “abnormal” enough to seek out mental health resources. Even though daily life became an arduous struggle, I somehow still believed that I was normal. 

It didn’t take long for my friends and Fraternity brothers to notice that something was off. Their understanding and support helped open my mind to reaching out for professional help. While I was undeniably a little apprehensive about seeking therapy, I slowly began to understand its value after subsequent sessions. I truly began to understand that mental and physical health are not separate. A true state of well-being puts neither in importance over the other. Without the help that pushed me to schedule my first session and understand that good mental health is a part of one’s health as a whole, I do not know if I would be writing this article today.

I have no doubt that my experience with mental health was greatly influenced by my parents. However, they had my best interests in mind when raising me. My health and well-being were of the utmost importance to them, and they raised me in the best manner they knew, which was influenced by how they were raised in Vietnam. Speaking to my mom about her own upbringing confirmed this to me. While this article focused on the differences in my upbringing as a Vietnamese-American, I am sure there are many more demographics that share experiences similar to this. The stigma around mental health can be constructed by many factors, and while overall it has greatly improved in recent history, there are demographics who are raised where the stigma is more deeply rooted. When these young people leave for college, they may not be utilizing what may be a wealth of resources. This may not be because they don’t know these resources exist, but because they haven’t considered that it’s more than okay to seek help for one’s mental health. In fact, it’s incredibly healthy to do so. Living a healthy life? Now that's what should be normal.

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- MARCUS AURELIUS

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