By Hope Chookazian
This profile is part of our “Faces of Depression” series, in honor of Depression Awareness Month.
TW: Depression, Guilt, Child Grooming, Sexual Harassment, Religious Trauma, Disordered Eating
“It’s a cult and I was groomed,” Kaitlyn Santiago said, recalling her younger years as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Santiago, a junior creative writing major at Purchase College, has experienced depression ever since she can remember. Because of her deeply religious upbringing and the stigma her family had about discussing mental health, she grappled with feelings of shame and confusion for much of her life.
“I never really knew how to label it,” she said.
At an early age, she experienced bullying, and her parents divorcing. Despite that, she remembers happy times, such as her mother making summer breaks fun. These times would serve as a break from the playground bullies.
Santiago also described her father as not being interactive, which brought her down a lot. “He didn’t really know how to interact with me and my brother,” she said. “He would really only take us to the library or Toys R Us.”
Throughout those years, Santiago’s depression would show up physically and mentally, causing her to have to live with bad stomach aches.
“I lived off cornmeal for a long time when I was a kid,” she recalled. “It was the only thing I could stomach.”
As Santiago, now 21, got older, her depression started to shift and show up as anger and irritability.
“I begged my mom to see a therapist since I was having a lot of anger issues,” she said. “She finally got me one when I had a panic attack.”
Mental health isn’t a hot topic conversation for Santiago and her mother. She explains her mother as not understanding the issues surrounding depression.
“It felt like a slap in the face,” she explained.
She recalled a similar reaction from her dad. When she was 17 she asked her dad how he would feel about her seeing a therapist, and she was met with stigma.
“You don’t need a therapist,” her father exclaimed. “You’re not crazy, only psychos go to therapists.”
Misconceptions such as these can bring a sense of shame, and can also prevent those living with mental illness to seek help. According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of those living with mental illness don’t receive help. Often, it’s due to the fear of being viewed or treated differently.
Santiago still sought out help but felt a sense of shame surrounding it due to the misconceptions held by her parents. “My dad still doesn’t know I’m in therapy,” she said.
Another hindrance she faced was being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I wholeheartedly hated Thursdays,” she said. “I would cry and cry because I wouldn’t want to go to church.”
Santiago’s maternal grandmother, 85, has been a Witness since she was 18. Her mother was raised as a Witness but Santiago described her as not as serious about it. “We would still celebrate holidays and birthdays even though my grandma would scold us,” she said.
According to the Jehovah’s Witness website, birthdays are not celebrated as they believe it displeases god.
“The church manipulates you into believing everyone in the world is bad and your only friends and family are within the church,” she said.
Santiago recounts feeling manipulated by her grandma into going to church. Knowing her history of being bullied, she describes her grandma using that saying she would be able to make friends at church. She then experienced bullying from peers within the church.
Santiago said she experienced grooming by another Witness around the age of 12.
“I genuinely thought he was my friend,” she said. “He would scold girls who picked on me and say I looked nice.”
At a barbecue hosted by her family, the other Witness made advances towards her, which made her uncomfortable.
“He tried to calm me down but I started to scream and punch him,” she said.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are very secretive,” she said. “There are documentaries on how they push everything under the rug. Such as sexual assault, and domestic violence.”
Santiago details nothing was ever formally done, and the man eventually moved to a new congregation.
Experiencing this as a child was bound to leave Santiago with profound trust issues in the world around her.
“I really only started to let my guard down, and realize not everyone was out to get me when I turned 19,” she said.
The bullying was also isolating to her, she explains not having friends until middle school.
“My only safe space was my room,” she recalled.
Santiago would often bottle her emotions up because she didn’t feel like they mattered. She proclaimed she was always the type of person to do things herself.
Some warning signs she now knows to be associated with her mood lowering are trouble concentrating and restlessness.
“My low moods come and go, but they’re very prominent during the winter, and now through Zoom,” she said.
By working through her mental health, Santiago continues to persevere through her depression and the stigmas attached to it. Now, she shared advice for parents and other students who are living with depression.
“For parents: just listen to your kids,” she said. “Don’t compare them to other kids, and respect their privacy. Also, read up on symptoms of depression: not all kids are vocal. Your presence should be a safe one, not an intimidating one.
“For students: Prioritize yourself!” she exclaimed. “Take mental health days. Make time to hang out with friends. College is when you find a support system, and build stronger emotional connections. You can let loose!”