A great power in words: An MBA student’s mental health journey
As we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we invited Luis, a student with the MMM Program, to share his experience at Kellogg and how his own personal journey got him interested in the mental health care space. Read on to learn how he's using his classroom experiences to explore the topic of health equity among communities of color.
By Luis Eduardo Cerro Chiang ’23 MS, MBA
Growing up in Peru, I was taught that there are two topics you should never talk about in public: politics and religion. Mental health, although not officially included in the list, was also something that should not be discussed with others. Any mention of it would be met the same way all taboos are: hushes, awkward silences, and sudden changes of topic. However, the problem with not talking about something is that, precisely, we never learn how to engage others in a dialogue about it. In the case of mental health, this also means we do not learn how to describe how we feel or to let others know when we need help.
That happened to me. In my first year of college, I went through a rough patch. Back then, I did what I was taught to do: not talk about it. Instead, I ignored it, slept it off, went on countless runs, kept myself distracted doing anything but addressing how I was feeling. It was only when I started seeing a therapist that I could properly name the cloud in my head, the weight on my chest, and the knot in my stomach: stress, anxiety, depression. Hearing those words, I was perplexed. I was living my days as usual: going to classes, doing extracurriculars, going to parties. I did not fit the description of how, according to my then stereotypes, a person going through that looks like.
Ultimately, my disbelief was replaced by a sense of relief. Being able to name my feelings helped me recognize, engage with and understand them. Going to therapy was my first way of educating myself on what mental health is and how important it is to my wellbeing. In doing so, I learned that the way I was dealing with it before was not necessarily wrong, but it was certainly incomplete. Running, sleeping, spending time with others and doing activities outside of school and work are also ways to support my mental health. However, there is a greater power in words, especially when you can say them aloud. That was the missing piece.
It took me some time, but eventually I became comfortable with talking about mental health with others. Creating safe spaces prompted family and friends to share how they felt, and how they were dealing (or not) with their emotions. “Have you considered discussing this with a therapist?” That question was met with probably the same perplexed face I once had in my therapist’s office. It was not until I would share about my own journey that some would be open to the idea. Others would not, and that is fine too. Each person has their own way to engage with mental health; there is not a one-size-fits-all, and people should start going to therapy when they feel ready and willing to do so.
When I joined the MMM Program at Kellogg, I made learning more about mental health innovations one of my goals. In my first year, I joined bekome, a mental health startup co-founded by alumnae Shanna Traphoner-Liu ’22 MS, MBA and Vanessa Gottlieb Laudette ’22 MBA. There, I had the opportunity to first explore how to improve the matching process between therapists and patients, and later on the link between nutrition and anxiety relief. Now, I am learning more about the mental health space through VC Lab, a course that has connected me with an impact investing fund in the Chicago area that is looking into this space with a health equity lens.
Both experiences have made me more aware of the still very long road ahead to enable affordable, equitable and quality access to mental health. As of 2020, one in five people in the United States experienced mental health illness, but only about half of them received treatment. When we look at specific groups where stigma is still high, we see that the percentage of those receiving treatment is even lower: 37% of men, 35% of Hispanic or Latino, 37% of Black or African American, and 21% of Asian and AAPI. Even among those who receive treatment, 34% report having an unmet need in their mental health. The picture is clear: we should, we can and we must do better. Doing so means having high-need populations and communities in mind when ideating, developing and testing mental health solutions instead of creating additional ones that solely cater to those who can already afford and access it.
There are reasons to be optimistic about a better future for mental health. Even though stigma is still high, we are now engaging more often and openly in dialogues about it. We are taking risks to innovate and fund ideas in a space that not so long ago was only met with profoundly wrong stereotypes. We are, slowly but surely, allowing ourselves to have more grace with ourselves and others, and not to judge how we feel, but instead observe, understand and engage with our emotions. There still is a long road ahead. Let’s pave it with innovation, dialogue and compassion.