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AAPI in Mental Health

By Lily Tumbale, MusicWorx Intern
Edited by Theresa Kwong, Communications Consultant

 

As someone who identifies as mixed Asian American, I have experienced culture in a variety of ways within my home, my environment, and within myself. I am a mix of different ethnic backgrounds, including Filipino, Japanese, and Macanese. As a kid, I found conflicts between what I was hearing about other family’s traditions in comparison to the way I grew up. I later moved away from home to go to college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. During this time, I joined the Filipino organization on campus and learned more about other Asian peers of varying cultures, realizing many similarities and connections in our mental health views. During the COVID-19 pandemic, #STOPAAPIHATE was created to stand in unity against racism. More people within the community began to speak out about instances of hate, as well as awareness of mental health issues previously pushed aside. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan states, “I was no longer scared. I could see what was inside me” (Tan, Chapter 3). I hope that this is the stance we can take as the AAPI community – to learn more about mental health in our community.

 

Who is AAPI?

There are a variety of definitions and acronyms that are used to describe the Asian American community. I personally appreciated the definition from the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, stating that “we use the term ‘Asian and Pacific Islander’ to include all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander ancestry who trace their origins to the countries, states, jurisdictions and/or the diasporic communities of these geographic regions” (API-GBV, 2019). Other acronyms that may be commonly used include API (Asian & Pacific Islanders), NHOPI (Native Hawaiian & Other Pacific Islanders), and AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Other Pacific Islanders). 

There are more than 40 countries that identify as a part of the Asian American community. In the San Diego area, some of the biggest communities include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Papua New Guinean, Samoan, Cambodian, Filipino, Laotian, and Vietnamese. These groups were a few that came together to seek resources for the Asian community and immigrants in the San Diego area at the time when they needed support. 

In the latest census it is reported that over 22 million people find that they have a connection to countries of the above areas listed. The AAPI community is currently considered the fastest growing population, predicted to become 46 million people by the year 2060. Additionally, almost 50% of Asian Americans live on the west coast and nearly ⅓ live in California alone. There seems to be a responsibility to advocate and learn about the needs of this population, especially given the area in which we live because of its high population. Furthermore, 27% of Asian Americans live in multigenerational households which adds another layer into the life and culture of this community. 

 

Why AAPI in Mental Health?

“Compared to those of other racial/ethnic backgrounds, Asian Americans are least likely to receive mental health treatment – only 20.8% of Asian adults with a mental illness received treatment in 2020” (NAMI, 2023). Some of the main barriers that contribute to this low number may include language barriers, insufficient health insurance coverage, cultural stigma and shame, immigration status, the model minority myth, and faith and spirituality. 

“AAPI were more likely to report that they did not receive mental health treatment because they did not want others to find out and feared their neighbors’ negative opinions,” (NAMI, 2023). During interviews, I learned that in many languages there is not a direct translation or accurate term for “mental health,” rather, it translates to “crazy” in many languages. Therefore, being associated with this term is not one that many people would want others to know about. There are conflicts with the idea of interdependence that stresses the importance of resolving issues solely within the family unit, and the belief that this is all a person needs. Furthermore, the concept of mental illness and receiving help is considered weak and a sign of poor parenting, bringing shame not only to the person facing the issues, but to the whole family – because after all, the belief is that everything can and should be resolved solely within the family unit.

The Model Myth Minority is the misleading assumption that AAPIs are well-adjusted, attain more socioeconomic success than other communities of color through strong work ethic, conforming to social norms, and excelling academically (NAMI, 2023). This stereotype can create pressure from society as well as familial pressure that can prevent individuals from seeking mental health treatment. This myth encourages people to hide their historical influences and deny that their life includes frustration, let-downs, setbacks, failures, pain, and loss that are common for each person to experience. Additionally, the media portrays “universal” Asian American characters, those that are one-dimensional and uncomplicated. This perception created in society pushes Asian Americans to be as unproblematic as possible in the eyes of society. This also pits communities of color against one another, as Asian Americans are often used as an example of ‘successful societal integration’ by the majority – thus serving as a tool against other people of color who are struggling, perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes that only continue to oppress and not aid. 

Culturally-competent care is the best way to describe the support we can provide for the AAPI community. The first is creating a space that aligns with their cultural values. This often includes family at the center, and understanding its role in each individual’s unique culture. Creating a trust-based therapeutic relationship that understands the fears, stigmas, and cultural history unique to people of AAPI identity and their experiences is integral. Acknowledging the mental health movement in the AAPI community has to be built from within. Although we would like to help as many people as possible, there is much change that has to take place within the community itself to create a shift big enough to make a wave. 

The following resources will include organizations that support Asian Americans with mental health in local areas as well as wider online sources. I begin with a few larger areas and hope to encourage you to find similar resources or even grants to help support the AAPI community in your area. The online resources that I provide give general information about the AAPI community and how we can face the stigmas. These online sources can help people connect to larger communities, and hopefully serve as a starting point for movement towards help in more specificized geographical areas and their unique mental health needs.

Local Areas

In 1974, a group of varied Asian communities (including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Samoan, and Guamanian peoples) came together to receive a grant from the City of San Diego. There were no Asian groups large enough to receive basic services for its impoverished, ill, elderly, and limited English speaking members. Now, UPAC has staff that speaks over 30 languages and dialects. They have services that range from adult & older adult to children & adolescent mental health, addiction treatment & recovery, community, and more.

Founded in 1974 by the Richmond Asian Caucus, RAMS addresses the needs of the mono/bilingual speaking people in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Today, they have staff that speaks over 30 languages with 130+ sites. They have services that include clinical & counseling services, peer-based services, prevention & early intervention, and more.

NYCAAMH shares resources in New York city to support Asian Americans with mental health. Their mission “is to address the unmet mental health care needs and service disparities of the Asian American population through advocacy, community service, professional development and collaboration with government and local service providers” (NYCAAMH). They have partners across the New York area including NYC Well, New York City Child and Adolescent Mental Health Outpatient Services, and NYC Crisis Emergency Services. 

 

Online

The Asian American Psychological Association was founded in December of 1972 by a group of Asian American psychologists and other mental health professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are advocates on behalf of Asian Amercians as well as advancing its studies. They continue to develop research and practice in supporting Asian Americans by publishing journals and newsletters for Asian American professionals as well as how to provide services for Asian American clients. Recently, they released a booklet to support Asian Americans during COVID-19 to best support their mental health needs. 

NAMI is an alliance of local affiliates who work in the community to raise awareness and provide support on mental illness. NAMI works to “educate, support, advocate, listen and lead to improve the lives of people with mental illness and their loved ones” (NAMI). Within the NAMI page, they have a section focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders including history, barriers to mental health care, and how to seek culturally competent care as well as resources. 

Although not a resource focused on Asian American mental health, this organization stands up against racism. The movement rose during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of the increase in hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Their mission is “to advance equity, justice, and power by dismantling systemic racism and building a multiracial movement to end anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate.” Additionally, they recognize that to do this they must work to end all forms of racism and often partner with other communities of color. 

 

References

Asian and Pacific Islander identities and Demographics. Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence. (2019). https://api-gbv.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/API-demographics-identities-May-2019.pdf

Asian American and Pacific Islander. NAMI. (2023). https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Asian-American-and-Pacific-Islander

New York Coalition for Asian American Mental Health. (2023). https://www.nycaamh.org/

Tan, A. (2019). The Joy Luck Club. Penguin Books.

 

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