By Julia Tong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
The recent shootings in Monterey Park and Halfmoon Bay have triggered widespread scrutiny of the mental health of both the Asian perpetrators and the AAPI community as a whole. These discussions reflect the media’s tendency to speculate about the mental health of the perpetrator whenever violent events occur.
But experts say that the link between violence and mental health is far more complex. And for Asian Americans, living in an era of anti-Asian violence has created other mental health effects that only exacerbate existing disparities within the community.
AsAmNews spoke to psychologists, activists, and experts to understand the mental health impacts of violence within the AAPI community, and how to support those who are struggling with these heavily stigmatized issues.
“The majority of folks with mental illness do not have any violent tendencies”
Contrary to public perception, the evidence linking mental health and violence is weak, according to many experts. Major organizations such as the American Psychological Association and MentalHealth.gov, agree that the majority of people who commit violence don’t have mental illnesses. In fact, evidence suggests that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators themselves.
According to Dr. Jeff Mio, a retired psychology professor at Cal Poly Pomona, the common association of mental health with violence is a result of a phenomenon called “illusory correlation.” This effect occurs when two infrequent events happen together, creating the illusion that they are both more common than they are in reality.
“If someone who is mentally ill also uses a firearm or engages in some sort of violence, then you have two relatively infrequent events co-occurring,” says Mio. “And then observers look at that and say, ‘then they must occur a lot.’”
The illusory correlation between mental health and violence could worsen the already heavy stigma surrounding mental illness. Dr. Michi Fu, a licensed psychologist specializing in cross-cultural and international mental health, says those assumptions are “frightening,” and may discourage people struggling with their mental health from finding help.
“It’s important for the public to keep in mind that the majority of folks with mental illness do not have any violent tendencies,” says Fu. “So it is important to uncouple that pairing.”
They add: “There’s a lot of damage to be done if we continue to point towards mental illness as the reason why these people acted.”
What the illusory correlation between mental health and violence obscures, however, are the complex and structural root causes of violence.
One central cause is the lack of gun control legislation in the US. According to Mio, the availability of guns in the country increases the probability of violence by enabling perpetrators to commit mass violence. However, politicians protecting gun rights will blame mental illness instead of the lack of gun ownership restrictions when violence occurs.
“The country has had a history of protecting gun rights rather than people’s rights,” he says. “It’s easier to try to address the mental health aspect rather than the gun aspect.”
Many of the other root causes of violence are social—and overlap with those impacting individual mental health. Licensed psychologist Dr. Jenny Wang says that these “multifactorial” causes of violence include many “systemic pressures” that stress people’s lives.
On a general level, these pressures include securing what is, per Wang, the “basic foundations” of mental health: A liveable wage, food security, housing, and other necessities for survival. Americans also face racism, discrimination, and, oftentimes, intergenerational trauma. Recent immigrants in particular may face added stress from adjusting to daily life in a society with unfamiliar languages, institutions, and other unfamiliar aspects that makes day-to-day life difficult.
These pressures can all compound with existing personal trauma, creating negative outcomes.
“All of those things and observed pressures on mental health… then can push somebody into poor decision-making,” Wang says. “It can impact their reasoning and judgment. It can make it difficult for them to understand the consequences of their actions when they are under intense stress.”
These factors do not necessarily cause violence. Instead, they impact the mental health of Asian Americans on a daily—and nonviolent—level. And focusing on the mental health of the perpetrator, in the wake of mass violence, also erases the collective trauma that violence has had on the community as a whole.
Simply watching someone of the same identity be a victim of violence can create a collective trauma, which psychiatrists refer to as “vicarious trauma.” In an era where images and video of anti-Asian hate crimes are widely shared and publicized, they say, vicarious trauma is playing an increasingly more major—and under-discussed—role in Asian American mental health.
“In order for there to be trauma, you don’t actually have to be a direct recipient of that violence,” says Fu. “You can just engage in watching the media.”
These mental health disparities, however, are often overlooked in the discourse focusing on the connection of mental health with violence.
“Growing up, it was really hard to communicate things, not just because of stigma, but also because of language barriers.”
One crucial step to improving mental health outcomes in the Asian American community is having open conversations about the subject.
Advocate Carrie Zhang, who founded the Asian Mental Health Project (AMHP), has seen firsthand how open, vulnerable discussions can help facilitate healing. Zhang began receiving counseling and therapy in college. However, she found it difficult to open up to her family about her mental health struggles.
The breakthrough moment came when she was interviewed by a Chinese publication. While her parents were initially angry, they began to connect their own emotions and experiences with hers.
“My dad was like, ‘you know, actually, I think I experienced anxiety too.’ And I was like, ‘Holy crap, [that’s] the first time he has ever talked to me about this,’” she recalls. “And it was the first time that he opened up to it.”
Bridging the language gap, she said, was the crucial factor in helping her parents understand her struggle. The Mandarin language article allowed her parents to read and fully understand what she was going through.
“Growing up, it was really hard to communicate things, not just because of stigma, but also because of language barriers,” Zhang says. “So that language barrier crossing was monumental.”
Now, she says, her family discusses their mental health openly. The crucial factor in doing so, she says, was “meeting in the middle” of their communication styles and theirs. Her mother, for instance, is deeply involved in the church, so Zhang has learned about how to support her through her faith. Another useful strategy, she says, has been using physical symptoms as an entry point to talk about mental effects, such as asking if an upset stomach is because of stress or anxiety.
“I’m working towards having them seek their own professional mental health care if that is something that’s available to them, but releasing the notion that that may not ever happen,” Zhang says. “I can only gently encourage and provide with them some resources as to why that may be helpful, in a language and a manner that speaks to them.”
“We all need to be… vulnerable with the more human aspects of who we are.”
Experts say that recognizing the signs of mental health struggles in a loved one, and learning how to support them, is important.
Early warning signs include disruptions to daily functioning such as unusual sleeping and eating patterns, not showing up for work, or being unable to get out of bed or enjoy pleasurable activities. Socialization habits may shift: A person may isolate, or not be able to socialize or connect with others. They may also suffer from mood swings, irritation, paranoia, anxiety, and other behavioral changes. Signs that these symptoms have escalated into a crisis, however, include a person increasingly talking about death or a preoccupation with ideas of dying, or speaking as if there’s no future.
According to psychologists, helping someone struggling with their mental health can start simply. Checking in regularly can build a trusting relationship, helping them be comfortable with coming forward if they feel unwell or need help. In cases where this is not possible, Fu recommends staying in touch with someone close to the person, such as a spouse, friend, family member, or coworker.
“Being able to enlist the help of allies to also serve as an extra source of social support can be helpful,” they say.
Helping someone get professional help—especially during times of crisis—can be important. If a person decides to do so, Wang recommends offering them tangible support: For instance, helping a person calm down, sitting down with them to find a therapist, or driving them to the hospital or appointments as needed.
However, finding effective professional help can be complex for Asian Americans—and not just because of stigma. Western psychology tends to involve extensive talk therapy—and multilingual therapy is uncommon. Culturally competent care is often lacking in a largely White and Western-dominant field. And calling emergency hotlines such as 911 or 988 may result in police arriving—which does not always lead to good outcomes for people of color.
One option to mitigate these issues can be to reach out to resources dedicated to Asian Americans. The Asian American Psychological Association and Asian Mental Health Collective both provide nationwide directories of AAPI psychologists. Organizations like the Yellow Chair Collective, Entwine Community, and Center for the Pacific Asian Family also offer mental health services for the AAPI community. Regional organizations also offer community support. For instance, Asian Americans Advancing Justice SoCal provided multilingual mental health hotlines in wake of the Monterey Park and Halfmoon Bay shootings.
Wang, however, also stresses that a psychologist does not need to be Asian American to be a good fit. Finding a professional with humility about their own implicit biases and privileges and respect for their patient’s experiences, she says, is crucial for effective treatment.
“Often we find ourselves as Asian Americans, as people of color, at the lower power end of the hierarchy where we may feel as though this expert or mental health professional is somehow more qualified, more informed about my life…which is not always true,” says Wang.
“And so it’s really important that the therapist demonstrates humility and being able to put aside their ego and receive feedback that helps guide their work. “
But jumping straight to having a loved one get professional help is not necessarily helpful. Wang points out that pressuring people can be counterproductive, ultimately discouraging them from reaching out for help.
And undoing stigmas surrounding mental health on a communal level, she says, begins with being more “vulnerable with the more human aspects of who we are.”
“When we do that, I believe that we give other people what I like to call the gift of going second. When I go first and share my story or show up vulnerably, it creates space for others to do the same,” she says. “It has that ripple effect within our community.”
Honor our own particular styles of self-care, and to keep in mind that being in community can be part of that.”
Zhang’s experience underscores an important fact: There are many avenues to mental wellness beyond professional Western therapy. One path is radical self-healing, which incorporates activism and advocacy alongside individual healing. Others involve community-based care that can support individuals in the way they prefer.
Fu says it is important to uplift the unique ways individuals find support—whether it is from self-care, faith-based communities, volunteering, or other connections that the individual chooses.
“It’s important for us to honor our own particular styles of self-care, and to keep in mind that being in community can be part of that,” they say.
This community-centered care is central to the ethos of AMHP, who, as Zhang says, believes that “we care for each other.” There are two reasons for this approach. The first is an understanding of how social pressures impact mental health. AMHP views food security, housing security, and fighting oppressive systems as essential parts of mental healthcare.
Their perspective is supported by psychologists. Wang, for instance, says that connecting individuals to social workers, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations helping to alleviate those issues can be a crucial part of mental health treatment.
“It’s those tangible needs that often can need to be met first before we can really address the higher-level mental health concerns,” she says. “And often, if we can address the foundational pieces, then some of the mental health concerns do alleviate or improve with time.”
The second is that culturally competent outreach to the community can help educate the community about mental health, encouraging discussions that ultimately destigmatize those topics.
To do so, AMHP services include in-language resources on mental health, as well as weekly free workshops with mental health professionals. The organization also conducts grassroots outreach, reaching out to community at street fairs and other events with free self-care items and multilingual materials.
These culturally informed care initiatives can also help reframe mental health and its relationship to violence in the Asian American community.
In the wake of the Monterey Park shooting, AMHP, which is based in California, hosted healing circles for the local community. Participants discussed violence and mental health through a culturally and historically informed lens. By doing so, they were able to explore issues not usually mentioned in those discussions, such as the role that cycles of intergenerational trauma play in violence, emotional repression, and masculinity.
Zhang says that a combination of professional and communal support, plus a broader cultural shift towards openly discussing mental health, can be greatly useful in disrupting these cycles.
“One of the things that we find very important is how we break these cycles of violence, and in turn cycles of trauma,” Zhang says.
“And a lot of the answers lie in destigmatizing talking about our feelings, and also providing comprehensive community care initiatives that will address these from the root of the issue.”
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