We’re People, Not Projects
By Serena Lee
60: Here's the Thing
May 05, 2018 | min read

They actually laughed at me when I finally showed them my Zoloft prescription.

“You can’t be depressed if you’re a strong Christian!” Mama exclaimed.

“Everyone is depressed. You should be able to get over being ‘sad’ without medication,” Baba mocked. 

At 18, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had been sent to a psychiatrist after I tried to get hit by a car one night. I couldn’t tell them about my daily panic attacks. I couldn’t say that this darkness made me skip class, lie restless in bed, and compulsively cause self-harm. So I silently hung my head in shame, and accepted their simple prescription: Just pray more. 

I had been sent to a psychiatrist after I tried to get hit by a car one night.


I did pray more. I begged God to take this away. I asked Him to forgive my lack of faith. But the darkness would not lift. I pushed people away. I knew I had friends to confide in, but none who shared my cultural context. They didn’t struggle to create terminology for their immigrant parents or face extreme stigmatization. They might even blame my culture for causing my mental illness. It was just easier to shut them all out.

They might even blame my culture for causing my mental illness. 

For five months, I wanted to give up, to let go, to “escape” the pain. But even though I tried to hide my suffering, my community watched me nervously with sympathetic eyes and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. 

One day, I received a phone call from the counseling center. They asked me to talk with the doctor. 

“I’m just tired,” I tried to say with conviction.

Dr. H cut to the chase. “Serena, do you want to live?”

I shrugged. It didn’t matter because I already felt dead.

“Serena, the school is very concerned about you.”

I wanted to speak, but I was too tired, too numb.

After 15 minutes of silence, Dr. H drove me to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. 

Tests. Doctors. Strip search. Parents screaming over the phone. 


On the third day in the psychiatric unit, I finally took a shower. The next day, I showed up to group therapies. I talked with my social worker. I lined up like everyone else to take my new medications. I even let friends visit me after their classes. For the 10 days I was in the hospital, I felt the slow but steady process of my resurrection. 

We’re People, Not Projects

I think the stories I heard from patients with drug and alcohol addictions, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and PTSD were what humbled me to receive the help I was offered. We laughed together when someone cracked a joke about mental health treatments because we saw our stories in each other’s lives. We cried about moments of loneliness and despair.

As I began to reevaluate my life, I was jolted awake by the realization that my own community had surrounded me without my knowing. One roommate made my bed every day. Another roommate sometimes slept in front of the bedroom door, putting herself on suicide watch. My worship pastor drove me to pick up antidepressants. A professor spent extra time talking with me when he noticed I was skipping class. Faithful friends brought food, wrote notes, and silently prayed for me. 

My own community had surrounded me without my knowing.

I left the hospital feeling a sense of renewal. I fully embraced my newfound motivation to prioritize my mental health and follow my care team’s treatment plan for me. I did not, however, anticipate the uphill battle of recovery, my vulnerability to relapse, and my frustration toward stigma and “easy fixes” in the mental health field. 


A year and a half later, Kathy started talking to me. She didn’t bother me until she brought along Jessica, who brought along Kyle. All of a sudden, I couldn’t hear my thoughts because these people inside my head were talking too loudly. I very quickly lost sight of reality and believed what these voices told me. I had no idea I was experiencing psychotic symptoms of another severe depressive episode. 

I had no idea I was experiencing psychotic symptoms of another severe depressive episode. 

While experiencing threatening and commanding voices is difficult and scary, I did not feel like a lesser human being until I saw the mental health professionals’ reactions. The first time I described my psychosis, I was immediately hauled to the ER for another psychiatric evaluation while a police officer supervised me. The hospital sent me home that night with potent antipsychotic medication and arranged for me to see several psychiatrists and psychologists in the area.

“I believe you have schizoaffective disorder. It’s schizophrenia and depression combined.” 

“You have borderline personality disorder, and traits of avoidant personality disorder.”

“You should consider dropping out of school.”

“Have you thought about living in a residential program?”

Within two weeks, I was slapped with more diagnoses and cocktails of medications. Mental health professionals used labels to predict my level of function and ability to contribute to the world. The doctors were seemingly only interested in subduing the monster they saw in me. They wanted to fix me, without asking why I needed fixing.


My therapist, Eric, invested two years building a relationship with me. He didn’t just learn about me — he learned me. He learned my triggers and remembered my effective coping skills. He tried to understand my Asian American family and made sure not to over-spiritualize my hardship. He recognized when the voices were bothering me and taught me how to manage them. Some days, he would silently hold a tissue box while I sobbed. Other days, we laughed. I was often angry at him for pushing me too hard, but I always knew he cared about me. 

Relationships were what made recovery possible. The pills, worksheets, and hospital stays were helpful, especially when my condition worsened and require escalated interventions. But those interventions were a temporary solution to a chronic problem. Nothing could replace the relationships that made me see my worth just as I am, with or without mental illness.

It is important to me that my generation carries on the efforts of previous generations to spread mental health awareness. I am grateful that mental illness is less stigmatized and many more people have come forward to receive treatment in the last decade as a result of normalizing mental health disorders, however, there is still work to be done.

I hope that we will find ways to not only make mental health treatment accessible to anyone who needs it, but to integrate patients back into community, to influence society to accept this marginalized group as wholly human, equally worthy of love and support, and valued voices deserving to be heard.

Accept this marginalized group as wholly human, equally worthy of love and support, and valued voices deserving to be heard.

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