BY NICOLE ALMEIDA
My first contact with mental health issues came from the TV. Back in 2009, “Caminho das Índias”, an Emmy-award winning Brazilian novela, portrayed a leading character diagnosed with schizophrenia. My 12-year old self did not understand what was happening to him. When I asked the adults around me, they would say he had a “problem” and was “sick” – sometimes even “crazy”. At school, we wouldn’t talk about his illness. Instead, we would repeat some of his most traditional line in a joking fashion, like: “There are rats in the pool.” Funnily enough, during and after the novela’s run, the main impact that people extracted from the character was how good the actor was, the challenge he faced to play such a demanding role, and how he managed to do it so well. Let me not dismiss the actor, though, he was terribly impressive. But what people remember is the actor’s delivery of a character’s line, not what he was portraying and the importance of his character in raising awareness about mental health issues and stigmas.
I think this reflects a lot about how Brazil approaches mental health.
Back home, people refuse or avoid the topic of mental health, veiling the issue. When mental health is inevitable. the stereotypes and stigmas appall me. I’ve heard people say “Oh, she cut herself? So she’s obviously depressed and wants to commit suicide” and “Never mind him, he’s just wrong in the head”, in addition to other frustrating statements I’d rather not share. In Brazil, when you suffer from mental illness, you are reduced to your illness, and people seem to see you as nothing more. There is both a covert and overt prejudice that follows being diagnosed with a mental illness. It happens when people isolate you, believing that you have alienated yourself, whisper about you and shoot you looks everywhere you go. A friend of mine who is also Brazilian and a student at my American university told me “In Brazil, people view you as your disease, they ignore the problem, there is no dialogue – mental health is a taboo”.
I always felt troubled by the fact that people didn’t seem to care, that they thought it was easier to ignore and forget troubles that others are going through. The stereotypes and lack of general information about mental health was something that I, as someone who feels strongly about this issue, felt like I needed to change, at least in a small scale. I became outspoken, never afraid to tell people to stop maintaining their prejudices. I demanded they pause and listen to what I had to say about other people’s real, human experiences. Sometimes they listened, sometimes they didn’t. As I read more about the subject, I looked around me and noticed that shoving this topic under the rug was wrong in all levels, but also noticed that this way of dealing with the situation was something inherent in Brazilian culture. I love Brazil with all my heart, but I still find it disappointing that the country with the warmest and most caring people I know has such an antiquated view regarding mental health.
But then I came to school in the U.S., and everything changed. Here, mental health is given the importance it needs to be given – people don’t fear talking about it and fighting for it. I find this so inspiring (at least at my own college). At the University of Pennsylvania, where I attend, suffering from mental health issues does not reduce you to your struggle. People make concerted efforts to reach out and help. Having our university president at freshman convocation, in addition to other speakers during orientation events, emphasize the importance self-care and mental health exemplified how this is a place completely different from home. People want to help you. Peers and school officials can provide you with so many different resources just to make sure that you will get better. I don’t mean to say those in Brazil would neglect someone in need of help, but I’ve always witnessed a concerted effort to mask mental health as another issue, and to avoid confronting real health challenges. The candidness I find around at my school is exactly what I need so that I can learn more and more about mental health, its treatment, and impact on society. And, hopefully, I can take a bit of it back home to try and make my country a little better.
Nicole Almeida is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a managing editor at Beautiful Minds Magazine. Photography by Nicole Almeida.