By Melina Acosta, MSSW ’19
Are you learning anything in school that could help me?” This was a question my father asked me one weekend in November 2013 during my first semester of college. He was experiencing depression and suicidality and I had no idea how to support him, nor did I understand what it meant to be depressed or suicidal. My major was kinesiology at the time, but in the psychology class I was taking as part of a core curriculum requirement, my professor was about to start the unit on mental illness.
“Not yet, Dad. I’m sorry. I’ll let you know if anything I learn in psychology could help you.”
“It’s okay, m’ija. Thank you anyway.”
It was difficult for me to conceptualize being a helper for someone I had looked up to my whole life. My father fled Cuba as a teenager in the 1970s and moved on his own to rural southwest Texas, reluctantly leaving behind his mother and 15 siblings. After decades of struggle, he eventually became a successful, self-employed life-insurance salesman, which suited his independent, self-motivated nature and strong work ethic. He was known to be a do-it-yourself kind of person; he disliked asking anyone for help. Doing so was not, and still is not, customary within my Latino culture, especially for a topic as stigmatized as mental health.
When my father told me he was suicidal that weekend in November 2013, I was so visibly frightened that he immediately retracted his statement. I stayed quiet, bewildered and unsure of what to say next. My father died by suicide a few days later.
After my father’s death I switched my major to psychology and made it my life’s mission to learn something that could have helped him – something that could help others like him. I became an undergraduate research assistant and helped develop questionnaires designed to measure concepts related to suicide risk. I also founded the UT San Antonio chapter of Active Minds, a student organization that promotes mental health awareness and suicide prevention efforts on college campuses across the country.
My initial intent after college was to apply for doctoral programs in clinical psychology, but my work with Active Minds introduced me to the field of social work. I learned that, as a social worker, I could engage in advocacy, psycho-education, and programming related to mental health and suicide prevention. I had found my calling.
During the master’s program at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, I experienced immense personal growth through my coursework and internships, and was able to process my loss by immersing myself in initiatives that were deeply meaningful to me. Social work practice calls for constant self-reflection and self-awareness. My instructors helped me to confront my biases, explore my values, and understand my triggers in order to best serve my clients.
At a personal level, since my father’s death I have become a mental health resource among my family and friends. Several of them, most of whom are Latino, have opened up to me about their mental health struggles and have asked about services and resources, often for the first time ever. It has been very fulfilling to watch stigma around mental health dissipate and help-seeking behaviors increase among my loved ones—many times in spite of deep-set cultural beliefs.
The loss of my father motivates me in my professional and personal life. My passion is to mobilize resources so that no one has to experience the tragedy that I have, and so that people who are struggling can get the help they need. My hope is to fulfill the promise I made to my father by doing something to help people like him.