She’s creating her own therapy, helping herself by helping others

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

At age 21, Magaly Mendez has battled more challenges than most people ever will.

The fourth year sociology student at UC Irvine grew up poor in west Los Angeles, the daughter of an overworked and undocumented single mom. As a child, she said, she suffered multiple incidents of sexual abuse. But her family didn’t understand the mental health consequences of that, she added, nor could they afford therapy.

Additionally, Mendez struggles with uncertainty about her immigration status. She came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 8 and is currently protected from deportation by a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) permit. That program is now in limbo under President Donald Trump.

Unsurprisingly, all these stressors have put a strain on Mendez’ mental health. In her freshman year, Mendez wrestled with depression. Sometimes she couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed to work at the campus dining hall, though she needed the job to support herself through college.

“Many times I just wanted to cry,” she said. “There were times that I couldn’t focus, I wouldn’t do homework or I wouldn’t want to wake up in the morning.”

Mendez sought therapy at the university counseling center but was referred out because she was told she needed long-term help. She tried that therapy briefly, but felt it didn’t work. And as she already struggled to pay for rent, food and books, she found the $15-per-visit copay was too expensive.

Financial challenges have contributed to her mental health problems, Mendez said. She believes the same is true for other low-income and undocumented students.

“We have to buy all these books, and they’re expensive. And then we have to pay rent, tuition hikes; like, oh my gosh, it’s so much money,” she said. “We have to get a job…that means so many hours. And then we can’t do homework…


“It’s just a lot of things that keep you from really focusing on school.”

For two years, Mendez struggled. But she also found outlets. She got involved in student government and labor activism, fighting for the rights of workers on campus.

Focusing on the needs of others, she said, helped put her own struggles in perspective.

Activism also led Mendez to meet other students from a variety of backgrounds, including some who are dealing with their own mental health issues. That’s helped her feel less alone, she said.

“We can vent together,” she said. “So, essentially, we become our own therapists.

“Going out to drink wine and eat pizza, talking and de-stressing about the day and all these issues. That became another form of therapy.”

Claudia Boyd-Barrett writes for the Center for Health Reporting at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. Reporting for this project was supported by a grant from the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission.

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