KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Mental illness is hard to talk about, and that's true even with people who've grown up in this time of oversharing on social media. Today Kenny Malone of member station WNYC introduces us to a 24-year-old whose career is all about being open about mental health but who's also having trouble sharing her own mental health issues with her family.
KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Rose has dealt with depression since high school. Typically she'd put her head down, focus on school and get through it. But during her senior year of college, Rose couldn't even focus on school anymore.
ROSE: I was struggling. I was feeling depressed. I was feeling isolated. I was crying at Cheerios commercials, which is not normal.
MALONE: Rose started seeing a therapist, and now she's in her third year of getting a Ph.D. in psychology - of becoming a therapist. We're only using first names to protect her patient-therapist relationships, but Rose is doing fine. She hasn't, however, shared anything about her own depression with her parents.
ROSE: I think probably the worst-case scenario was disappointing them.
MALONE: There are a bunch of reasons Rose has never said anything, almost all of which stem from the fact that Rose grew up in the United States while her parents grew up in Pakistan.
ROSE: My dad committed to moving to the United States when he was growing up.
MALONE: And he basically worked since he was nine years old...
ROSE: My mom got married from an arranged marriage, didn't really know her husband very well.
MALONE: ...And then almost immediately moved to a new country.
ROSE: And started having children and...
MALONE: Couldn't really visit her family.
ROSE: Like, those are real problems. Those are huge struggles to have to deal with as a human.
MALONE: So on one hand, Rose felt like her own depression seemed frivolous by comparison. Plus, with her mom, there was this baggage.
ROSE: So I had moved out for college, and that's not really the norm for my cultural background. I was afraid that I was going to share this with her and the response would be, I told you it wasn't good for you to move out; you should've stayed home.
MALONE: Which, on one hand, would be a sign that she was taking the problem seriously I guess but not recognizing that you, as an adult, can handle it.
ROSE: Right, exactly.
So Mama, will you introduce yourself?
SELMA: My name is Selma. I live in Texas.
MALONE: A few weeks ago, Rose decided to take a huge step. As she and I were talking about this story, she realized this could be a good opportunity to tell her mother for the very first time about her struggles with depression. She agreed to record the conversation.
ROSE: I don't think I've ever asked you. How do you feel about my decision to be a psychologist? (Laughter) Complicated feelings.
MALONE: One of the reasons Rose was interested in sitting down with her mom for this story was because she plans to do her thesis on this very kind of thing. In general, kids have trouble talking with the parents. But in Rose's case and for a lot of first-generation Americans, there's not just the generation gap. There's also a culture clash. Rose spends about 20 minutes tiptoeing up to her big confession.
ROSE: I know you've seen family that's depressed. You've seen the symptoms like being cranky, sleeping a lot, not eating that much - those kinds of things. Did you ever notice any of that in me when I was living here or even now?
ROSE: You never noticed any of that?
SELMA: I don't think so - you having this problem.
ROSE: Well, it actually has been a problem for me.
SELMA: I know, but I think so - this is not big problem.
ROSE: OK. So you've noticed those things, but it's not a big problem?
MALONE: After that, Rose goes on for a while, explaining to her mom that she sort of hid her depression, and maybe that's why it didn't look like a big problem.
SELMA: You have depression. I understand. You lived alone. Nobody talked to you, and I know this is a depression.
ROSE: But you know, I don't think it's because I live alone because I felt this way in high school when I lived here. Like, this isn't brand new. You know, when I was really worried about sharing that with you because I didn't want you to judge me, I didn't want you to think that I'm weak or broken. Do you think of me any differently?
SELMA: No. We are proud of you. And you are a angel of our life.
ROSE: So after this conversation, what, if anything, do you think is going to change?
SELMA: You move here.
ROSE: (Laughter) I'm not moving here. I think you know that.
MALONE: So that conversation ended on what seemed like a pretty nice note. But then Rose shut the recorder off. And she says her mom was mad about Rose going public.
ROSE: OK. I just talked to Mama, and I'm feeling drained.
MALONE: Rose recorded herself venting to her younger brother shortly after all this.
ROSE: What was hardest for me is - then she said - like, you just said on the recorder that you have depression. Now all of the aunties in our community are going to say things, and it's going to be harder now for you to get married.
UNIDENTIFIED BROTHER: (Laughter) No.
ROSE: Yeah. I tried to be like, well that's the point. That's why we're doing this because both in our American culture and in our Pakistani culture, there's a stigma. And she knows it because now she's afraid that people are going to know this about me and judge me for it. And it's going to make it harder for me to have a future the way she wants me to have a future.
MALONE: Hey Rose, can you hear us?
ROSE: I can.
MALONE: I talked to Rose a few weeks after she'd sat down with her mom, and she said things didn't go at all as she'd hoped.
ROSE: Where you have this one hour-long conversation, and then it's beautiful, and it's over. It's never going to be like that as much as I think we picture that to happen in our head.
MALONE: And immediately afterwards, honestly, she says, she regretted sharing all this with her mom. But then later that night, Rose's mom started asking these little questions, trying to figure it all out.
ROSE: Where did this start? What could I have done differently? Like, is this because I wouldn't let you wear makeup to school? And it felt like she was coming from a place of wanting to understand better rather than judging it.
MALONE: And with a little time, Rose found herself during the same thing - trying to understand her mom's reaction instead of judging it.
ROSE: I've had years to come to terms with this knowledge about myself. And I gave her what may be an hour-long conversation and then expected her to, at the end of it, be totally understanding and calm and collected about it, which wasn't fair on my part.
MALONE: Rose says sharing and being open about mental health may ultimately help bridge this kind of culture gap, but you have to be ready for a process, not some kind of hit-and-run conversation. Laying everything out has helped her and her mom be more reflective. She says if that's the case, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in New York.
MCEVERS: That story comes to us from the Only Human podcast at member station WNYC.
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