Mental Health and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community

Many of us may know someone facing mental health challenges – this could be our neighbor, our best friend, a family member, or even ourselves. The study of mental health is still nascent, and ever growing. Over the last 10 years, there have been tremendous strides in the work to study and understand mental health. Many of these studies, however, fail to address the cultural stigma surrounding mental health in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. In a culture where problems of any sort are often kept quiet, CAPAL’s Washington Leadership Program (WLP) session V on mental health, led by a group of expert panelists, addressed the important issues surrounding mental health and how the AAPI  community can work to overcome them.

CAPAL started off the session with the documentary  “Can: Mental Illness and Recovery in the Asian-American Community.” Can is a film about Asian Americans suffering from mental illness. The film follows the precarious life of Can Truong, a young Asian-American man who at an early age was diagnosed with manic-depression. Can and his family are among millions of refugee “boat people” who fled war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s. After graduating at the top of his high school class and being accepted as a pre-med student at the University of Chicago, he begins experiencing difficulties and is diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. As the disease progressively  worsens, he is forced to drop out of school due to difficulties concentrating and studying.  Inspired by his peers, Can embarks on a healing journey of a different kind—trying to resolve cultural differences with his traditionalist father, deconstructing his painful childhood wounds, volunteering with mental health organizations that promote recovery, and exploring spiritual and holistic healing modalities.

The WLP panel, led by moderator Juliet Bui, a Health Analyst at the agency of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and who has worked with Can in the past, opened up the discussion by asking questions to our mental health experts, Matthew Miller, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education, and Francine Gorres, a Programs Manager at Asian American LEAD. Throughout the evening, our panelists and audience members engaged in a discussion to deconstruct the stigma associated with mental health and its impact on the AAPI community.

The panel started off with discussing the pressure that AAPI children feel to live up to the expectations of their parents in their education and careers.  Francine mentioned that the children she works with everyday are hard-pressed to share their feelings, and feel anxiety from parents’ expectations to succeed, often leading to low self-esteem. Also, growing up in two different cultures can often be confusing, leading children to feel like they have to play dual roles in society and in their homes. Matthew phrased this term “cultural homelessness” which is when a person of two cultural backgrounds feels like they are a part of both cultures but at the same time they don’t feel like they fit in either. To address this problem, Matthew pointed out that there is not “one AAPI experience” under the AAPI term. We need to acknowledge and tolerate the myriad of AAPI experiences and cultural differences by having an open dialogue. Francine suggested having workshops around the topic of identity, having programs that acknowledge AAPI differences, and encouraging students to explore their differences.

The lack of mental and behavioral health care access for AAPIs is a growing area of concern within the community. The panel highlighted that there are not enough resources available to AAPIs who are seeking help. For many, language barriers prevent individuals from getting the care that they need due to the lack of AAPI professionals practicing in the field, and the lack of understanding of AAPI mental health challenges in the culture. Another issue was the general perception that AAPI populations do not have mental health issues. This may stem from stereotypes perceived by non-AAPIs and also a lack of conversation and support within the AAPI community.

College campuses across the country are being proactive when it comes to addressing student health and educating people on the topic of mental health. As part of a prevention strategy, Matthew has worked with faculty across the University of Maryland’s campus to be aware of risk factors associated with mental stress and implementing a 24-hour student hotline.  The audience was left with tools and resources to help people with mental health disorders.

The panel concluded the WLP session with advice to those who find themselves in a position of helping someone who may be suffering from mental health issues. They noted the importance of being there as a friend and taking the time to listen to the individual, asking questions, being aware of their situation, and allowing them the safe space to voice their concern.  However, even more importantly, it is also critical to understand your limitations of helping someone who may have mental health issues and instead, assist them in seeking professional guidance.

Finally, if you or someone you know is going through mental health challenges and needs a support system, our panelists encourages you to visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is a confidential and toll free 24/7 live support line.