By Aisa Villarosa, Associate Attorney
Since her death in 2014, my grandmother’s legacy of recipes has outlived her earthly body. At least a few times a year, my Lola (“grandmother”) takes a seat at the family table through the lovingly recreated afritada, adobo and pancit she made for her children and grandchildren. We savor these inherited dishes while stories as vibrant as her smile dance around us: Grandma traveled the world, spoke three languages, and survived World War II – all remarkable feats for a woman born in 1926.
Another part of Grandma’s spirit lingers, yet remains largely unspoken. Her lifelong struggle with depression and schizophrenia – accompanied by a lack of understanding, treatment, and support – lives on; Not prominently displayed on dinner plates, but in searing memories swept under the rug.
Grandma grew up in a conservative 1950s Philippines, where punishment–not rehabilitation–framed mental health. When Grandma was a young woman, her family reacted to her illness with fear and contempt, secluding her from support and healing. The mistreatment she experienced ended when she fled her family home with my grandfather, whom she immigrated to the United States with years later.
I don’t know what Grandma felt during this time in her life, or how she maintained her inner strength. Though we shared the same household during my childhood, I never asked her about this or anything related to her wellbeing. Instead, I spent innumerable nights hiding under bed sheets as Grandma wept over, debated with, and screamed at her boses (“voices”) in the adjacent bathroom. At sunrise, my family gathered in the kitchen for breakfast, but never to discuss the frenzied dialogue of English, Spanish, and Filipino transpiring each night. As Grandma’s condition worsened, so did my family’s pain – experienced collectively and yet, by our silence, in deafening solitude.
As a first generation Filipina American, I appreciate the struggles and triumphs unique to my family and heritage. As a mental health advocate, I have seen how silence around mental illness can consume young people, their families and communities. From the absence of transparency and dialogue – even in traditional spaces for sharing, such as the kitchen table – comes trauma that shouts across generations, race, and culture. Time and time again, we tolerate this brewing discord until it becomes too loud to ignore – and often when it is too late.
How often do we distinguish between what pieces of our identity we share and what parts we hide away? Why can’t we rally around mental wellness as comfortably as we gather around a family recipe?
My grandmother struggled with mental illness and inadequate treatment for most of her life. Tragically, she’s not alone. Compared to the general population, Asian Americans are substantially less likely to seek mental health services, and young Asian American women have the second highest suicide rate among all racial/ethnic groups in the U.S.
Despite remarkable advances around mental healthcare since my grandmother’s youth, we still face barriers to wellness.
May is Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. With deep gratitude for two movements that have informed my own advocacy, I realize more than ever that challenges faced across groups cannot be addressed separately. Whether assisting a relative living with mental illness or providing broader support following tragedy, it’s time to acknowledge wellness in its beautiful, scary, and multifaceted whole.
Mental health is far from an abstract enigma – it is as tangible as the people we lose to trauma and isolation. If such pain is fueled by solitude, solutions must be created with community.
This year, Mother’s Day fell on my mother’s birthday, and we celebrated in the cozy humidity of my family kitchen. As we prepared breakfast, my mom and I laughed, cried, and remembered Grandma in her complex and brilliant entirety. Through a pledge of continued openness, a new tradition took root in our introspective, food-centered family – an unprecedented “recipe” that Grandma would love.
Wellness is served.
 According to a 2012 National Center for Health Statistics Report, incidence of suicide among young Asian American women rose by 96.3 percent from 2000 to 2009.