Ilana is a graduate student, yoga-lover, nature enthusiast, and is unapologetically in favor of referring to all fully-grown dogs as “puppers”. She is a first year Ph.D. student at West Virginia University studying Behavioral Neuroscience, with a special interest in substance use. Ilana was born in Trinidad and moved around to several islands in the Caribbean as a child, eventually settling in Miami, Florida at age 6 where she remained until heading off to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from which she received her B.A. in Psychology. Ilana returned to Florida to obtain her Master’s in Public Health, and then lived briefly in Houston, Texas performing neurobehavioral research on addition with the University of Texas Health Science Center.
Along the way she has surfed the many waves (which at times felt more like tsunamis) that come along with her diagnoses of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Binge Eating Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She is familiar with the many manifestations of mental illness in daily life and how that can be compounded by belonging to a minority group, feelings of displacement from moving town-to-town and general family or social instability.
1. Tell me about yourself:
I have had difficulties with my mental health since I was around 12 or 13. I’ve run the gambit of seeking spiritual, therapeutic and medical treatment – many times fearing that nothing would work. It was not until I was able to receive a fortunate combination of social support, constructive therapy and effective medication that I have found the head space to not only live with my mental health issues, but use my experiences to help others.
2. What type of reactions are not easy for you to hear?
My fear has always been the reaction that mental illness is a choice or character flaw. That if I tried harder I should be able to cure myself. I’ve also feared that in my darker times, when my ability to give is dwarfed by my needs, that I am a burden to my loved ones.
3. Early on, why didn’t you share your diagnosis with others?
My fears of the aforementioned reactions was one reason, which were strengthened when cultural differences led my immediate family to respond in that exact manner. As I have learned more about mental health and grown more confident, met more allies and close friends I have had corrective experiences that have shown me that sharing my experience is important both for myself and for others who may need to hear about someone else experiencing something similar in order to feel safe opening up, or to feel heard and understood.
4. What reactions do you appreciate when you share with someone that you live with a mental illness?
I appreciate support and understanding. I share my diagnoses and struggles with those that I trust, and I’ve found it so encouraging to have people take in that information and continue to love and respect me, to understand that it is an additional facet to my life, however not one that diminishes my value as a person .