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Be unafraid: Why Asian Am must end stigma of mental health

By Jenny Wang

“The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.”  — Cathy Park Hong, “Minor Feelings”

As we observe AAPI Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s become more critical than ever for us to address the confluence of factors disproportionately contributing to mental health inequities in the AAPI community. Study after study has shown that racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from worse mental health outcomes, and the AAPI community is no exception.

Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than Caucasian Americans, and suicide is the leading cause of death among AAPI youth. In particular, Asian American women have a higher rate of suicidal ideation than the general population.

How do we explain the impact of the lived experiences that contribute to these alarming statistics? Mental health stigma is pervasive in AAPI communities, due to a combination of cultural norms, language barriers, lack of culturally competent care, stigma, and misinformation. A major barrier is the availability and accessibility of mental health resources — as many as 43 distinct ethnic groups make up the AAPI community, making it difficult to provide resources in every language. 

In many Asian cultures, mental health concerns have traditionally been considered taboo, resulting in the tendency for many to dismiss, deny, or neglect their symptoms. Due to traditional Asian values of collectivism and group cohesion, many within the AAPI community may have not grown up learning to directly express thoughts or feelings. Additionally, for many second-generation AAPI immigrants, balancing two different cultures and developing a bicultural sense of self can lead to core identity struggles between balancing familial ties with assimilation pressures. 

There also exists the pressures of the “model minority” stereotype — the long-held notion that Asian Americans are hard-working, keep their heads down, are compliant, and don’t complain. As a consequence, the discrimination fears and concerns of the AAPI community have been chronically dismissed or historically minimized. As author Cathy Park Hong defines it, “minor feelings are the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”

Compounding these mental health issues is a backdrop of rising racist rhetoric and the scapegoating of the Asian community since the onset of the pandemic — from 2020 to 2021 alone, reported anti-AAPI hate crimes rose by more than 167 percent. In fact, throughout history, pandemic-related health crises have been associated with the stigmatization and “othering” of people of Asian descent, leading to increased verbal and physical violence. The recent pandemic has only exacerbated the discrimination and microaggressions the AAPI community has long faced — and studies show clearly that experiencing ongoing racial trauma can lead to greater anxiety, stress, and depression.

Collectively, what can we within the AAPI community, along with our allies, do? Let’s begin with our own spheres of influence. Let’s have more candid, authentic conversations with our social circles, families, and communities about mental health issues. By being unafraid to be vulnerable, we take small steps to help disrupt and break the cycle of stigma. Let us bring awareness to and help challenge our own internalized stigmas around mental health and the model minority.

In addition, consider getting involved or donating to organizations like the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA) and Asian Pride Project, which specifically seeks to empower LGBTQI+ individuals in the AAPI community. 

For more resources supporting mental health in the AAPI community, please check out the following websites:

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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