Some Haitian-Americans with mental health issues say they have learned the tools to cope
By Nicole Alcindor
In the fall of 2010, when Cassandra Laguerre was 22, she was sitting in a psychology class with dozens of other students when her body suddenly began to shake and her heart began to beat faster than it’s ever beat before. The episode turned out to be the first of many unexplained panic attacks she experienced in the months that followed.
On Nov. 20 of that year, Laguerre’s godbrother suddenly died, and she was riddled with depression. About a month later, Laguerre attempted suicide.
While receiving psychiatric treatment, she was then diagnosed with depression — the underlying cause of her panic attacks.
Now, Laguerre said, she has been able to manage her mental illness better. Even when the year’s pandemic emerged, bringing with it depressive thoughts, Laguerre said she has coped.
“Even though I’ve been through a lot, I don’t think [this] holiday season will be any more stressful than it usually is,” said Laguerre, 33, of Canarsie, Brooklyn. “But I will regret not being able to spend time with my family members because of the pandemic.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the holidays arrive, many Haitian-Americans who suffer from mental illnesses said they do not anticipate this period to be any more stressful than the previous years.
However, two mental health experts said, many people might fail to realize how experiencing a pandemic and the holiday season at the same time can exacerbate their mental health issues. Since they have never experienced both together before, that is.
“When you have a global pandemic, it leads to fear and loss of control for many people,” said Alexandra Dufresne-Mcglashan, a clinical child psychologist in Bellerose, Queens. “When you take that and combine it with the holiday season, people might be surprised at how their mental illnesses will be likely to climb to the surface and become visible in ways they have never seen before.”
Dufresne-Mcglashan also said that not only will the pandemic with the holiday season be likely to cause more severe mental health issues, but people who have family members who misunderstand their mental health conditions are likely to struggle even more.
“Even if you haven’t experienced an actual death or loss because of the pandemic, we are all mourning and grieving the lives we lived before the pandemic and people are worried about getting sick,” Dufresne-Mcglashan added.
Stigma among some Haitian-Americans
Within many Haitian families, Dufresne-Mcglashan added, mental illness stigma is prevalent.
“Many Haitians see mental illness as a weakness in their children,” said Dufresne-Mcglashan, who works with teens. “I always tell my clients that, ‘no one should be made to feel like they should suffer in silence.’”
Sohamy Pinard, a psychiatric nurse practitioner based in Brooklyn, said many people have experienced higher levels of anxiety and depression because of the need to isolate or quarantine. For many, the distance from others has resulted in more time to think about past issues they might have been harboring and avoiding.
Also, Pinard said, mental health treatment in Haiti is limited to severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or psychosis. As a result, many Haitian immigrants tend to avoid seeking treatment because they fear being associated with a severe condition. Those who believe mental illness is due to Vodou or is otherwise religion-related may also tend to avoid therapy and medication.
“Many people with mental illnesses will turn to self-harming or self-medicating this holiday season,” Pinard said. “When you add in not being accepted for your mental illness, it’s a recipe for an even bigger disaster.”
Both Dufresne-Mcglashan and Pinard advised that anyone struggling with mental illnesses should reach out to loved ones or trusted confidants to get help through therapy services. Sufferers may also reach out through various crisis hotlines.
Years of struggle, then some reprieve
For years after her diagnosis of depression, Laguerre said, her mother labeled her as lazy or ignored her due to the lack of knowledge about mental illness. During her 20s, Laguerre’s long bouts of sleep to escape her environment weren’t viewed by her mother as a symptom of depression.
“Over the years, I’ve learned ways to cope with my depression, which has helped decrease my panic attacks,” Laguerre said.
Briana Tina Gero, a Baldwin resident also diagnosed with depression and who has anxiety, prior holidays have caused her distress. However, since she will not have many guests over this season, she does not anticipate being as stressed.
“This year, there will be less people, less preparation and less pressure to impress,” she said.
Tina Gero, 21, has also found herself misunderstood by her Haitian mother.
“My mother acted like my mental illness was an attack on her dignity,” Tina Gero said. “At least when my mom makes jokes about my mental illnesses, she’s acknowledging that it’s a thing, but there’s never any productive talk about it.”
Freeport resident Elizabeth Jeudy, 36, has had more experience managing her alcohol addiction when it comes to her family, but it is still tough.
“My Haitian parents didn’t understand that I’m spiritually sick and they would tell me to drink juice instead of alcohol,” said Jeudy, an emergency medical technician. “My parents would often say that I should just go to church, anoint my head with holy water, or go pray to stop my addiction, but I just needed a support circle.”
Like many other Haitian-Americans in similar predicaments, Jeudy has had to find other people to talk to, places to go and things to do to cope with their mental illnesses during the pandemic.
Laguerre first found relief in therapy following her suicide attempt. Now, she relies on her two closest friends for encouragement and motivation. She also uses her exercise bicycle and practices breathing exercises to keep from becoming depressed.
Tina Gero, now a college senior, said school has helped with her depression and anxiety. Before COVID-19, she practiced self-care by exercising, joining student clubs and making more friends.
“Now that the pandemic has shut a lot of that down, self-care is often a burden for me, but I’m trying to maintain what I already have through counseling,” Tina Gero said.
This holiday season, Jeudy said, she plans to reach out to loved ones to help her to stay sober. Maintaining a virtual connection with her therapist this winter is also important for her continued growth. As is continuing the 12-step program she joined before COVID-19 that she now attends through pre-recorded sessions. Jeudy also hopes to stay in communication with other people in recovery during this holiday season.
“I’m not trying to play games with this,” Jeudy said. “I want to make it through the holidays and out of this pandemic, healthy.”
If you or someone you know needs a therapist, visit psychologytoday.com//therapistfinder to find one. Creole-speaking therapists are available.
In New York City, crisis counselors are available 24/7 by calling 1-888-NYC-WELL, texting “WELL” to 65173 starting an online chat. To speak to a live crisis counselor in the Long Island area, call 516-679-1111.
For help anywhere in the U.S., contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hotline at 800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741.