BY TEMI OGUNADE (staff writer)
Graphic: Mary Long/Shutterstock
In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that around 6.1 million US adults had experienced at least one major depressive episode that year (Shannon-Karasik, 2017). Among those unfortunate numbers are a percentage of people whose depression seems a little different, in this case... immigrants with functional depression.*
Often downplayed as "not as bad" as the stereotypical depressive episode, immigrants with this kind of depression are still able to be productive—not because they want to, but because of their desire to keep themselves busy as an attempt to distract themselves from their isolative thoughts.
As a 2nd generation immigrant, I often find myself diluting the extent of my depressive thoughts by thinking of my mom, who is doing the same things I’m doing but balancing her job, her personal life and her family. Thus, I have nothing to be sad about. There is this weight on my shoulders making it seem like my life is a caricature to please my parents and be the perfect example for my siblings, so I can’t possibly let them all down. I have to keep going.
This aspect of depression seems to be rarely talked about because people imagine depression as a black hole that sucks any and every ounce of motivation. Though that may be the case for some immigrants with depression, in high functioning depression “individuals tend to forge ahead in an effort to succeed with goals," says psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, PhD (Shannon-Karasik, 2017). In other words, an immigrant’s motivation and ambition fuels their depression more, leaving them anxiety-stricken and exhausted at the end of each productive day.
For example: the older daughter is the pride and face of the family. Therefore, in my head, as the eldest daughter, I feel like my will to survive in order to make my parents proud is stronger than my will to recognize my negative emotions. This allows for months and months of contempt and fake smiles before you no longer feel like yourself, and it has become your duty to cater to everyone else's feelings but your own.
Not only do immigrants with functional depression have to put on this mask, they also tend to downplay their depression because the media, society or even family members have placed a tight box around what depression should look like: “If you are not visibly sick or bed ridden, are you even depressed?”
Depression can take the shape of many forms but oftentimes, they are deeply internal struggles that may not be obvious to others who do not suffer from depression. It becomes hard as an immigrant to constantly deal with outside factors making you feel like your accomplishments or way of life makes you somehow exempt from the possibility of depression because what could you be depressed about? In reality, the need to “complete tasks or to succeed in one's daily life may be the only thing that gets one out of bed” (Khan, 2021).
As an immigrant myself, the routinely rigid structure of my busy schedule shields me from confronting my negative feelings in order to avoid falling apart mentally.
The misconception that depressed individuals have to be lazy, unmotivated, and lack creativity is highly outdated and needs to be reformed. You may be the most put together and productive person but still feel like your life is meaningless, like you are merely existing with no real joy in life. Although it may be hard to understand the pressures that affect an immigrant with functional depression, we shouldn’t isolate them because they don’t outwardly show signs of depression. Rather, we should encourage them by creating safer spaces around highly intense places like work, school, or even at home. This way, it makes it less embarrassing for other immigrants to admit when they feel exhausted or when they feel their lives have been on autopilot mode.
Thus, let us all learn to lead with kindness, as we never know what someone may be dealing with internally.
*Not all immigrants with depression have high functioning depression