Diane Guerrero Wants You to Know It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

The noted actor is using her new podcast to ease the shame and stigma that can follow traumatic events and mental health issues.

Television star Diane Guerrero has launched an unfiltered podcast that she hopes will destigmatize people dealing with mental health problems. Photo: Lelund Durond Thompson 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic consequences have hurt many people’s mental health. They have had an outsized impact on the mental health of young adults, many of whom have experienced closed schools, lost income, and social isolation. Fifty-six percent of people between 18 and 24 years old reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder — a larger share than other adult age groups, according to KFF. Latinx and Black adults, whose communities have experienced disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths, have been more likely than White adults to report such symptoms.

Colombian-American actor Diane Guerrero wants to open up the conversation about mental health, especially among young people of color. While she is best known for starring in the HBO Max series Doom Patrol and appearing in two other TV series, Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, Guerrero is also an author and activist. When she was 14, she returned home from school one day to find her parents and brother gone from their Boston home. Their cars were in the driveway and her mother had started dinner, which was still cooking on the stove. Guerrero, an American citizen, realized that her family had been detained and would be deported. The US government never sent anyone to check up on her, so she was effectively left to fend for herself as a young teenager. Her parents never returned to the US and remain in Colombia.

Separated from her family, Guerrero struggled with severe depression, suicidal ideation, alcohol use disorder, and shame over what had happened to them. Gradually, she focused on acting, started therapy, and spoke out about her experience. Now she wants to help other people talk about their mental health journeys. Two weeks ago she launched a podcast, Yeah No, I’m Not OK, in collaboration with LAist Studios, a podcast producer for Southern California Public Radio. The podcast is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Angell Foundation, and CHCF. Every week, Guerrero explores issues like addiction, depression, and anxiety with friends, colleagues, activists, artists, and health care professionals. In the first episode, she talks to her big brother Eddie about their family history of addiction, anxiety, and depression. In the second episode, she interviews Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of The Undocumented Americans and one of the first undocumented students to graduate from Harvard University, about her exploration of identity and mental health.

I talked to Guerrero to learn how she created the podcast, which she calls “a place for you to bring your complicated feelings and spend time with people who are rooting for you.”

Q: Why did you want to create a podcast about mental health?

A: I grew up at a time when you couldn’t really talk about your mental health. It wasn’t promoted in school, and it wasn’t something that people were open about at home or in my community. I was always taught to say that I was okay when I wasn’t, and that was hurting me. I saw a real pattern of that in my community, which was comprised of mostly Black and brown folks. And I saw that that pattern was connected to a lack of mental health resources. I thought, “Gosh, how is a community supposed to be healthy when it doesn’t have many resources or the ability to talk about how that affects people’s mental health?”

I really wanted to create a space where I got to talk about my feelings and everything that I care about with other people. Ever since I shared the story of being separated from my parents, I’ve gotten such great feedback. So many people see themselves in my story and want to talk. This podcast is the perfect place to have these discussions and take away the shame and stigma of trauma and mental health issues.

Q: How did you prepare to make this podcast?

A: Prepare? Oh man, I’m still preparing. I’m still figuring it out. And I think that’s the message of this podcast. The audience is going to hear me learn along the way. I’m not an expert by any means. I’m just a person who has mental health issues and has experienced trauma. I struggle with these things on a daily basis, and I’m not going to pretend to have it all together on this show.

Every episode is not going to be perfect. Maybe you won’t be inspired every time. But you’re definitely going to hear someone who’s human interview other people who are human, and we’ll talk about finding joys in the stumbles. That’s why I want to have guests who are going to be honest about what they’re going through and how they deal with their pain.

I’m really honored to be partnering with the LAist — that they saw something in me and wanted to learn together through this partnership. And I really hope that this podcast reaches the people who need it.

Q: Who are you hoping to reach?

A: I hope to reach anybody who’s on a mental health journey or learning to heal, but I especially want to reach kids of color who might not have access to mental health resources. The kids who are struggling to find the language to describe what they’re feeling or going through. I want to share what I learned as a kid whose family was separated through deportation, as a poor kid, as a kid who had learning disabilities, as a person who was left to fend for herself at a very young age but found a glimmer of hope to move on.

I realized that if I wanted to be useful in this world to myself, to my family, and to my community, I needed to get well.

Q: In the first episode, in a conversation with your brother Eddie, he said that “you have to be willing to let yourself be helped.” What convinced you to start seeing a therapist?

A: The turning point for me was — I was facing the question of whether I wanted to continue living. I felt so alone but didn’t have the language to articulate my feelings. I grew up thinking that everybody else had bigger problems than me — that my parents came to the US, didn’t speak the language, and sacrificed so much for me. Because of that, I had better appreciate what I have and survive. I didn’t feel like I could talk about my problems.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that my problems weren’t less valid than other people’s problems. I deserved to get help even if I wasn’t suffering as much as someone else. I realized that if I wanted to be useful in this world to myself, to my family, and to my community, I needed to get well. Seeking professional help should be, in my opinion, a right. Therapy wasn’t an immediate cure for me, but it was a good stepping-stone. And I was able to slowly find my way.

Q: You’ve talked publicly about the stigma around mental health in the Latinx community and access issues when it comes to mental health resources. What do you think the health care system should or could be doing right now to help Latinx overcome these barriers?

A: I think there should be affordable health care for all. And I think that access should be available to everyone, regardless of immigration status. Education and health care, including mental health care, go hand-in-hand, and those things should be a priority for everyone if we want healthy communities and a healthy country.

Q: What is the key point you hope your listeners will take away from your podcast?

A: I want people to remove shame about any mental health issues from themselves, from their lives. I grew up with a lot of shame, and that made it very hard for me to accept myself and to be healthy. I’m doing this podcast for anybody who was separated from a parent due to incarceration or deportation. For anybody whose parent was mentally ill and had to be raised by other family members. For anybody who was taken away by the Department of Developmental Services and put in a group home, and for anybody who is an immigrant and has felt less than. I want you to find this podcast and know that any shame you feel doesn’t belong to you. It was given to you, and now you have the power to remove it.

Listen to the first two episodes of Yeah No, I’m Not OK.

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