Mental Illness in Stressful Times – An Asian-American Family’s Story

Mental Illness in Stressful Times – An Asian-American Family’s Story


(Dr. Richard Nakamura)
I’m basically a NIH and NIMH lifer. (narrator)
Doctor Richard Nakamura now directs the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, where all incoming
grant applications undergo initial evaluation. But for the first 33 years of his NIH career,
Doctor Nakamura served in the National Institute of Mental Health. He eventually rose to the post of deputy director,
acting director and scientific director. On the occasion of Minority Mental Health
Month, doctor Nakamura recently confided how his own family coped with an endemic mental
illness. A history intertwined with an immigrant community’s
struggles during the social and economic turmoil of 20th century America. (Dr. Richard Nakamura)
Even though this is painful, I like to tell this story, because mental illnesses are so
stigmatized in our society and particularly in the Asian community. Let me go back to my grandfather who came
from Japan at the turn of the Century. He settled in the Yakima Valley. Was one of the first leaseholders there. It started as a complete desert. They turned it into a garden. Their success was such that there came to
be resentment. The Japanese Americans within the Valley were
forced out. They ultimately moved to California. So my grandfather — with at that time, 4
children and a spouse — moved to California, where they resumed farming in a somewhat friendlier
climate. However, partly because of some of the things
he went through and perhaps because of early signs of the mental illness that would affect
the rest of the family, in the mid-30s he completed a suicide. And my father, unfortunately, as a teenager,
had to find him and cut him down. Despite this disaster, the family and what
were then 6 siblings stuck together with my grandmother and managed to successfully continue
farming until World War II. When then like all the other Japanese in California
were put in concentration camps, as enemy aliens. These events were thought to have been the
original source of the stressors that led to mental illness in 4 of these children — severe
bipolar illness in 4 of these children. But it’s since be come clear that it wasn’t
just that. It was likely to be a genetic disease, because
several other members of the family have since developed bipolar illness. Some of my aunts would disappear for periods
of time. We were told they were “on vacation” or
visiting someone, when they were actually hospitalized. And the first time I had a serious discussion
about this was after my father had a severe bipolar episode and had to return from a sabbatical
in Japan to be treated in San Francisco. I was asked to come and help out my mother
while he was undergoing treatment. Then I was finally told about the history
of the family, about my grandfather’s suicide. And how it’s affected other sisters within
the group. Despite the fact that many individuals end
up hospitalized or in jail and have their lives completely wrecked by these diseases,
the family stuck together. Four of the children went on to complete college. My father went on to complete a Ph.D. And
even after he started having manic-depressive episodes, my father was able to become a full
professor economics at Columbia University. Similarly, his sisters, who also developed
the disease, were, in their own ways able to achieve, make accomplishments. One was a pathologist and one was a teacher. The mutual support within the family has been
absolutely critical. And is seen by everyone as the key to the
family’s success. Having this kind of problem motivates you. Makes you more sympathetic to others, because
you can understand why they may be struggling. The difference in outcomes for us in having
mental illnesses successfully treated has meant our whole family has been able to succeed
in a terrific way. And we can make significant contributions
to our society.

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