May: Asian Pacific Americans x Mental Health

Christie Kim, MHC

In addition to being Mental Health Awareness Month, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the 27th annual celebration of the culture and presence of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Such recognition of this population serves as a response to the way Asian Americans are often overlooked in national discourse, particularly in conversations about mental health. Roughly seven percent of the U.S. population identify as Asian or Pacific Islander (U.S. Census, 2017), which puts nearly 24 million people at risk of minority stress, discrimination, acculturative stress, discrimination, and conflicting cultural values, among many other issues.

In NYC, where Asians make up about 14% of the city’s population, the mayor is embroiled in questions of discrimination against Asian American students in the public school system. The city’s mental health initiative, ThriveNYC, appears to reach out to Asian communities through ad campaigns which feature individuals of Asian descent and copy written in Chinese, yet the program also receives criticism for failing to understand the needs of Asian New Yorkers and invest in culturally competent services.

While the stigma around mental health is gradually losing power, it continues to act as a barrier among Asian American communities where individuals may have learned to hold their feelings in or are shamed for seeking therapy. Those seeking help may be further deterred by language barriers, lack of awareness of mental health resources and services, or struggling to find a therapist who understands what it’s like to hold their identity.

There are, however, many ways to seek help and many therapists who are competent and knowledgeable about working with people of Asian backgrounds. If you identify as Asian American and are considering or seeking mental health services, here are some things to consider throughout the process.

  1. Know that you’re not alone. While it may feel like those around you have it all figured out, you may find that they can understand what you’re struggling with if you take a small step to share it with them. If you’re not ready to talk to a family member or a professional yet, consider reaching out to a friend or someone else in your community whom you trust.

  2. Find or build your community. As big and diverse as NYC is, it can feel particularly isolating for those who hold minority identities and even moreso for those who feel like minorities within the umbrella term of “Asian American.” Yet you can find others like you. Look for community groups or meetups geared towards people who grew up eating the same food as you, those who also feel at home with the smell of your favorite home-cooked meal.

  3. Figure out what is important to you and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Are you looking for a therapist of color? How important is it whether they are of the same race or ethnic background as you? Do you want someone who is culturally competent regardless of their identities? In the search for a therapist, many Asian Americans report that it is important to find a therapist of color, if not one who shares their specific racial/ethnic background. It may feel like there are so few therapists out there who look like you, but there are ways to find a good fit. Ask your friends and networks if they see or know of anyone, search through smaller, more niche therapist directories, reach out to mental health professionals and see if they can recommend someone.

Above all else, if you’re struggling and are interested in reaching out to someone, you can start anywhere.