Written By: Dr. Kailyn Bobb (PsyD)
July is National Minority Mental Health Month. As of May of 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate organization received 6603 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents, which include verbal harassment, avoidance/shunning, physical assault, and online harassment since March of 2020. This is likely a gross underreporting of the thousands of hate crimes incidents that actually occurred and went unreported.
In a year that has been painful to all for a variety of reasons, the severity of the struggles that the Asian American community has faced has been largely minimized and something that can no longer be ignored.
Embracing My Asian-ness In A World Of Mental Health
Growing up as a Chinese/Vietnamese American female, mental health was often not discussed in the home. To be sad, angry, excited…basically, any other emotion besides content was frowned upon and we have to put on a “good face” and not cause embarrassment or shame towards my family.
The pressures of being successful were defined as getting good grades, being at home by 6 pm (even as a teenager), getting married, and having children before the age of 25 was very much felt. But that was my life script.
I recalled being a young child and looking in the mirror, wishing my eyes were rounder, my hair was blond, and my skin be lighter. I remember looking through books, wishing my name sounded more “white.” I remember being teased for the shape of my eyes and even though I spoke “perfect English,” I was teased for speaking in Cantonese with my childhood best friend.
When I got older as a young adult in the U.S. Air Force, I was one of the extreme few minorities in a few ways. Not only did I identify as Asian, but I am also a female in a career field dominated by men. I recalled as a low-ranking Airman when a Major commented on “watching my little butt bounce” while I was on the treadmill in front of him or a comment from a peer about how I looked because I was seen as “exotic” or “demure.”
It was not until I was in graduate school discussing cultural diversity when I fully embraced my “Asian-ness” and my eyes were open to the unique circumstances that Asian Americans face.
Impact of COVID-19 On Asian American Mental Health
In a recent report published by Stop AAPI Hate, which featured findings for three research projects that investigated the effects of anti-Asian racism on mental health among Asian Americans during the pandemic, it found that Asian Americans were more stressed by anti-Asian hate than the pandemic itself.
Further to this, one in five Asian-Americans who experienced racism displayed racial trauma (Saw et al.).Those who experienced racism have heightened symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and physical symptoms (Liu et al.).
Mental Health Among Asian Americans
- As of May of 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate organization received 6603 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents, which includes verbal harassment, avoidance/shunning, physical assault, and online harassment since March of 2020.
- Asian Americans were more stressed by anti-Asian hate than the pandemic itself (Saw et al.).
- One in five Asian Americans who experienced racism displayed racial trauma (Saw et al.).
- Those who experienced racism have heightened symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and physical symptoms (Liu et al.).
- Asian Americans are three times less likely than their white counterparts to seek mental health support.
- While Asian Americans report fewer mental health conditions compared to Whites, they are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.
- 18% of the general U.S. population sought mental health resources, only 8.6% of Asian Americans did so.
- Mental health issues are on the rise for Asian American/Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian young adults. Serious mental illness rose from 2.9 percent to 5.6 percent in AAPI people ages 18-25 between 2008 and 2018.
- Binge drinking, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, illicit drug use and prescription pain medication misuse are more frequent among APPI adults who struggle with mental health issues.
Asian Americans and the Model Minority Stereotype
Despite the increase in mental health symptoms among the Asian American community, the “model minority” stereotype defines this race as successful, compliant, and quiet. Asian Americans are painted as studious, smart, and accomplished, but despite its positive tones, it creates subtle damage across the community.
Racial stereotypes become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which these high expectations for Asian Americans need to be achieved and maintained. In order to “save face” and upkeep an image of success, it results in the Asian American community being the least likely to reach out for help, leaving them feeling invisible, ignored, and forgotten.
What Unique Mental Health Struggles Do Asian Americans Face?
Accessing mental health continues to be a challenge for the AAPI community. Language barriers, the lack of awareness of the resources and services that are available, and the stigma of mental health continue to be obstacles to accessing care.
Most AAPI tend to seek out support from personal networks such as close friends, family members, and religious community members or seek out alternative treatment, such as herbal medicine, and spiritual health, rather than seek professional health for their mental health concerns.
However, the cultural stigma of mental health is often cloaked with shame, guilt, and embarrassment in such that the value and identity of one are often centered upon one’s ability to care for their family and community. To share one’s emotions, you may be perceived as “ungrateful” or “someone who complains too much or doesn’t try to solve anything for themselves.”
As such, mental health symptoms are often overlooked, rejected, denied, or ignored to avoid “losing face” or “being flawed.” For those who do attempt to seek mental health care, they find themselves in settings without people to who they can relate or understand their unique cultural needs, which further perpetuates the idea that mental health services are not meant to be used by them.
What Can We Do To Help Asian American Mental Health?
- Increase education and raise awareness on mental health through creative, innovative means to the Asian American community
- Increasing conversation that seeking support and treatment for one’s mental health is a sign of strength
- Inform the community that help is out there and no one has to suffer alone
- Promote accurate portrayal of mental health symptoms and what it is like to receive treatment in the media to reduce misconceptions
- Increase research in the unique disparities and collect disaggregated health data on Asian Americans. Currently, Asian Americans are seen as a monolithic entity rather than their own unique needs, which can be harmful and inaccurate. For example, 33.3% of Korean American adults experience depression while slightly less than 16% of Chinese Americans do.
- Advocating for affordable access to mental health services for all Americans
- Contact your local congressperson or senator about the importance of increase access to mental health care for all individuals
- 7.4 percent of Asian Americans and 9.4 percent of Pacific Islanders do not have health insurance
- Of AAPI adults with mental illness, 73.1 percent did not receive treatment compared to 56.7 percent of the overall population
- Removing the language and stigmatic barriers
- Overall, 32.6 percent of Asian Americans do not speak English fluently. This not only impacts access to mental health services, but also increases the likelihood of misdiagnosis and understanding treatment instructions.
- Offer professionally trained and culturally competent interpreters in treatment settings.
- Promoting cultural competency and diversity among mental health staff
- Increase education and training on the history and current presence of racism and cultural diversity.
- Being open to having conversations about race and acknowledging the racial differences may help overcome barriers to an open, honest conversation.
- Asian Americans as a whole are underrepresented in mental health care. College, universities, and professional associations should be more active and engaged to build interest and a pipeline of healthcare practitioners that is more reflective of the communities that are being served.
Mental Health is a Minority Health Issue
As a mental health provider now, I continue to educate myself on these issues as it continues to evolve and there is more information available. Personally, I find myself in the middle of conversations with my Asian family and friends, who have visible physical reactions when I tell them I’m a psychologist. It often includes an “oh” and then an awkward change in subject.
When they talk about someone’s mental health and how much they are baffled by it, I take a moment to breathe, remember to be patient, and make an effort to clearly explain in a manner that is non-judgmental and open.
Overall, I found the door to have these discussions open a little wider and it is never too late to get involved and learn a little more about those who have different experiences and backgrounds.
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic on (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.