Mental Illness Awareness Week 2010

  • On Friday, October 8th I was one of three panelists speaking about our experiences with mental health treatment at the Italian American Mental Health Conference. It was hosted at the Calandra Institute-the Italian American studies and counseling arm of Queens College, the City University of New York. Our talk neatly occurred during Mental Illness Awareness Week held in the first week of October every year.

    As well as presenting in the morning, I attended an enlightening session in the afternoon. I wanted to give you a take away from the event and wrap up with the talk I gave. I was the woman in the pink shirt.

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    One panelist spoke about how Italian men weren't supposed to express their feelings and he recounted the help he sought from a therapist after his wife divorced him.

    I'm interested in this concept of ethnotherapy and would love to hear from you about how your ethnic identity played a part in your recovery or got in the way of your seeking help.

    In the afternoon a therapist who had practiced in Italy talked about esaurimento nervoso: loosely translated as exhausted nerves. Mental illness carries such a great stigma in that country that therapists have a back door for patients to exit from so that the next patient coming in the front does not see you leave.


    The diagnosis of esaurimento nervoso won't be found anywhere in the DSM or other diagnostic bibles yet it is routinely given to Italians to assuage their fear of being labeled crazy. In one way this catch-all term makes it easier for them to accept that they might need treatment; on the other hand it perpetuates the stigma because no one involved directly confronts the problem and speaks about it.


    I fancy myself esaurita at times. I went to a psychic and without providing her any information she told me: "Sometimes your nerves are on edge."


    It is telling to me that the stigma is universal: cuts across all cultures.


    I told the audience that the number-one reason I recovered as fully as I have is that my mother drove me to the hospital within 24 hours of my breakdown. She knew something was wrong and didn't care how it looked so took immediate action.


    Her one courageous act made all the difference in my life.

    Once I returned home from the hospital she paid for me to see a therapist privately who was also Italian American. During the Q&A, I commented on how the therapist was Italian yet that was only a coincidence and my heritage wasn't talked about during our sessions.


    My parents came to visit me every day in the hospital. My brother visited me once and my twin aunts showed up at visiting hour too. The first Christmas Eve after I got out was celebrated liked it was every year since I was a kid: owing to my maternal grandmother's Neapolitan roots we feasted on fish. Hence the tradition is called in Italian families The Night of the Seven Fishes. We are lucky we can afford the lobster that is the entrée.

    Nobody in the room that night talked about my breakdown. I could only wonder what my mother told my cousins and the others when I did not attend my Grandpa's funeral because I was in the hospital. He was in a coma, hooked up to the respirator in the intensive care unit when I had my breakdown.

  • Only years later-about two years ago at a holiday party-I showed everyone an article I wrote in SZ magazine. This summer I was walking in the City and heard the name "Chris, Chris" and turned to see it was my cousin on a break from his job. He asked what I was doing there. I said I was seeing my doctor. It seemed odd that I journeyed all the way to Manhattan to see a primary care doc. I told him, "Dr. Altman's my psychiatrist."

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    Time and distance emboldens some of us. After the morning sessions ended at the Calandra Institute, numerous women came up to me to thank me for speaking publicly about my recovery. I will end here by talking about how I connected my Italian heritage to my success.

    In June 2000, I screwed up the courage to travel solo into the City to read at the Italian American Writers Association poetry reading, and I've been going there for 11 years now. In August 2004, the IAWA committee chose me to be a featured reader. I read in a dramatic, expressive way the first chapter of my memoir that is the breakdown scene and the positive ending of the book.

    Who does this? Who in her right mind would get up to a microphone and read a breakdown scene? The response was enthusiastic and I developed a fan club.

    This was not my first disclosure of my medical condition. In 2001, I attended the Italian American memoir workshop at the Calandra Institute and when the instructor left to go to Europe to do research for a book, everyone meet on our own to critique each others' work. So I first gained acceptance in this milieu.

    Details of my ethnic heritage are referred to in my memoir. It is titled Left of the Dial and I expect it to be published sometime in 2012.

    So now I'm interested in how other people's cultural identity shaped and informed their recovery.

    I'd love to hear your comments.


Published On: October 08, 2010