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The mental health implications of COVID-19 related violence against Asian Americans

A witness took this photo in Southern California of a racist expressing his animosity toward Asian Americans in early April

Amid the surge in COVID-19 related violence against Asian Americans, there is increasing concern about the damaging psychological effects of discriminatory acts directed toward Asian American communities. 

STOP AAPI HATE, a reporting center that launched on March 19 2020 to monitor the rise in verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans, has since received nearly 1,500 reports of coronavirus discrimination from Asian Americans.

In early March, Yuming Wang, a Philadelphia lawyer and honorary chairman of the Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition, created a WeChat group for Chinese Americans following mounting concerns over the rising number of racist incidents during the pandemic, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. In a greater effort to encourage Chinese Americans to report any racist incidents, Wang soon began to work closely with local and state police, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and other law enforcement agencies. 

“Chinese Americans have been increasingly worried about their safety every day, and the issue is getting deeper and deeper into their mental health concerns,” Wang said. “Among [the group members], the biggest concern is that when someone goes somewhere, [they] may be attacked, verbally or physically, because of being Asian or Chinese Americans.”

Coupled with fears of contracting COVID-19, Asian Americans are facing an additional worry of encountering growing hostility and racist incidents. 

A recent survey conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, found that more than 30 percent of Americans have witnessed someone blame Asians for the COVID-19 pandemic, NBC News reports. Among the survey’s total respondents, 44 percent labeled a specific group or organization responsible and nearly two-thirds of those respondents mentioned China or Chinese people.

Professor Russell Jeung, the chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, has also compiled data on these discriminatory incidents.

Jeung described these incidents as being motivated by “a level of hate and a level of anger that’s very palpable, that’s pretty horrific and pretty traumatizing,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle

The number of reported hate crimes against Asian Americans has seen a decline for 15 years, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data from 2003 to 2017. But in late March, the FBI warned of the likely increase of hate crimes against Asian Americans as the global health crisis continues. 

For mental health experts, this spike in racist incidents has serious implications for the mental health of Asian Americans, as growing research indicates a link between racial discrimination and anxiety and depression, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. 

In a 2013 review of 121 studies examining the relationship between racism and youth well being, researchers found that youth who had experienced discrimination were significantly more likely to encounter mental health problems. A 2007 study featuring 2,047 Asian American survey respondents identified racial discrimination as a significant predictor of mental health disorders over a 12-month period.

Gilbert Gee, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California Los Angeles, commented on the body’s response to encountering such discriminatory behavior. 

“When people are treated unfairly, it can create a stress response called allostatic load,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Allostatic load can impair the body in many ways, such as weakening our immune systems.”

Kevin Nadal, a psychologist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who researches the mental health effects of microaggressions, emphasized the importance of acknowledging the fear of experiencing racism.  

“Even if people aren’t experiencing direct incidents, just the knowledge of it can cause them to feel anxious, depressed, or hypervigilant, which can lead to other mental health issues,” Nadal also told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s a collective trauma — the anticipation comes from people of your shared identity having experienced violence.”

The rhetoric of some government officials and media outlets has also appeared to have an active role in the uptick of anti-Asian behavior. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, in a study conducted by Gee, an analysis of nearly one million tweets between November and March suggest that negative comments about Asians increased by 70 percent. Gee also found that negative comments about Asians spiked by 167 percent the week following President Donald Trump’s referral to COVID-19 as the “China virus” during press briefings and on social media platforms. 

Suzanne Chong, a psychologist at Ursinus College, urged individuals who have faced discrimination and race-based attacks to find support from friends, family, community and religious leaders, as well as mental health professionals because “acknowledging the reality of racism and the impact … will help dispel the heaviness and burden of being targets,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer

 “Offer your empathy and be an ally against racism,” Chong added. “Your presence is the best salve against acts of cruelty.”

Numerous campaigns and community efforts have heeded this call of extending empathy and resisting racism. Some of these organized efforts include the #RacismIsAVirus and #Washthehate social media campaigns. 

Joining many of these efforts is a new community relief initiative–Heart of Dinner–that delivers home-cooked meals and handwritten notes of love to Asian seniors in New York City struggling with isolation and xenophobia. 

Co-founded by Tsai and Yin Chang, this initiative is one of the many mutual aid groups created in New York to support vulnerable community members through helping them get food, groceries, and other necessary supplies, VICE news reports.

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1 COMMENT

  1. RE: The mental health implications of COVID-19 related violence against Asian Americans: I work in the healthcare field helping infected patients, but I’m more concerned about being attack for being Asian than getting sick. This has made me not only anxious but angry. It sickens me that so many people are dying and some people blame would me for it just because of the way I look.

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