By Catherine Mok
July is recognized as Bebe Moore Campbell Minority Mental Health Awareness Month — a time when we honor Bebe’s legacy by breaking down barriers, creating community and dismantling stigma. This mission also provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the unique challenges faced by Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities when it comes to mental health and well-being.
Bebe recognized that mental health is an essential aspect of overall health and well-being, and it affects everyone, regardless of cultural background. Unfortunately, for AAPI communities, there are often significant cultural barriers to receiving mental health support.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on AAPI mental health, with a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and xenophobia, which, unsurprisingly has caused increased anxiety, depression and trauma. But even prior the pandemic, the AAPI community battled a mental health crisis, largely because of the lasting impacts of racism, discrimination and acculturation stress. Additionally, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), AAPIs have the lowest rates (only 8.6% in 2019) of using mental health services compared to any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
As we reflect on the intersection of identity of mental health, it is imperative to articulate the mental health challenges that impact AAPI communities. Some of these challenges include:
In many AAPI cultures, mental health issues are often viewed as a personal weakness or a family disgrace. As a result, AAPI individuals are often subject to a cultural emphasis on "saving face" and maintaining a positive image. “Saving face” in Asian culture emphasizes the importance of maintaining harmony and avoiding confrontation, embarrassment or shame. But this pressure to save face can have negative effects on mental health.
In some cases, people may feel compelled to hide their emotions or difficulties, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. The fear of losing face or being seen as weak may also prevent them from seeking help for mental health issues or from expressing their emotions in a healthy way.
The language barrier is a significant issue for AAPI individuals seeking mental health services. Many are not proficient in English, and they may have difficulty communicating their mental health concerns to health care providers who do not speak their native language. This can lead to misdiagnosis, inadequate treatment and other negative outcomes. Additionally, even if they are able to find a practitioner who can speak their native language, they may not feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with a mental health professional who does not share their cultural background.
Collectivism is often emphasized in many AAPI cultures, which places a strong emphasis on family and community ties. This can manifest in a sense of obligation to one's family and community, as well as a willingness to prioritize the needs of the group over the needs of the individual.
While this approach certainly has positive social implications, it can also create a sense of pressure to conform to societal expectations and norms, which may include downplaying or ignoring mental health concerns. This can make it difficult for individuals to seek help for mental health issues as they may fear judgment and shame — knowing that seeking help could be perceived as a weakness or failure of the family or community as a whole.
In addition, there may be a cultural belief that mental health issues should be kept within the family or community and not discussed outside of it. This can lead to a lack of awareness of mental health resources and a reluctance to seek help from mental health professionals outside of the community.
Many AAPI individuals face difficulties trying to find treatment from mental health professionals who are familiar with their culture and understand their experiences. Furthermore, there may be a shortage of mental health providers who are trained to understand and address the unique mental health needs of AAPI individuals.
AAPI individuals may also experience intergenerational trauma related to historical events, such as war, colonization, racism, discrimination and forced migration. These traumas can have a lasting impact on the mental health and well-being of AAPI individuals and their families, often leading anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The "model minority" stereotype that portrays AAPI individuals as successful and high achieving can create pressure and stigma for those who may be struggling with mental health issues. This myth can lead to dismissive attitudes toward their mental health struggles.
The model minority myth can also create a perception that AAPI individuals do not face the same level of discrimination and systemic barriers as other minority groups. As a result, we’ve witnessed a significant misunderstanding of the AAPI experience and a resulting lack of support for the mental health struggles that people may face, such as racism, xenophobia and cultural marginalization.
To address mental health concerns among AAPI communities, it is essential to promote culturally sensitive mental health services that consider the unique needs and challenges of AAPI individuals. These services may include bilingual mental health professionals, culturally sensitive therapy approaches and community-based mental health programs. By recognizing and addressing the unique mental health challenges faced by AAPI individuals, we can improve mental health outcomes and promote overall health and well-being.
It is important for individuals within the AAPI community to prioritize their mental health and seek help when needed. It is also important to have mental health care providers who are culturally competent and able to understand and respect the unique cultural values and beliefs of AAPI communities so that those seeking help feel seen, heard and understood. This can help create a safe and supportive environment for people seeking mental health help, and it will increase the likelihood that they will continue to seek treatment and support.
Ultimately, by working to reduce stigma and provide culturally sensitive care, we can support the mental health of AAPI communities and build a more inclusive and equitable society for all. Let's use this month as an opportunity to celebrate the diverse cultures, experiences and contributions of AAPI individuals.
Catherine Mok, LCSW is a bilingual psychotherapist (fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin) licensed in both Texas and New Jersey. She is trauma and culturally informed, and she specializes in working with individuals, parents, couples and families. For more information, please visit: www.austinfamilycounseling.com/catherine-mok
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