Starting that Conversation on AAPIs & Mental Health

Nearly everyone can agree that mental health is both a much-discussed contemporary issue and a tricky, often nebulous term. When approached from an academic angle, mental health and mental illness can often times be too easily reduced to new research, newer pharmaceuticals, and the newest policies. Even when I first pitched the idea behind this blog post, I wrote, “With my first post, I want to examine the existing mental/physical health issues in the AAPI community, and then focus on current policies and resources that are available/aimed at improving the mental health of AAPI college students.”

But what does that even mean?

I want it to mean that we place our stories alongside our statistics and our policies. I want to have a frank discussion about what terms and concepts like “access” and “language barrier” and “cultural differences” represent from an AAPI standpoint. I want to know what young AAPI’s in high school and college face when they seek out mental health services. And in turn, I want to know what kinds of resources that we have.

The thing is, it’s incredibly easy to write out all of that. Paying lip service is often easier than taking action.

But what do we do–what can we do–when Asian-American women have a higher lifetime rate of suicidal thoughts than that of the general US population? What do we do when Asian Americans between 18-34 years of age think about suicide, intend to commit suicide, and attempt suicide at higher rates than any other age group within the AAPI community?

What do we do when the suicide rate of Chinese-American women is ten times higher than that of white women? What do we do when the number of deaths by suicide among NHPI increased 170% between 2005 and 2010? What do we do when 1 out of 11 AAPI adults have seriously though about committing suicide?

This past May, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) and the White House Office of Public Engagement hosted a briefing on mental health issues in the AAPI community. Topics included suicide prevention, barriers that prevent AAPI communities from accessing mental health services, and cultural considerations.

Slowly but surely, we’ve made progress with research and policy.  WHIAAPI has an E3! Ambassadors program aimed at supporting and empowering AAPI students from across the nation in an effort to address mental health disparities in our community. There are toolkits available online that are backed by the White House. We now have nonprofit organizations like the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA) that provide online resources and launch campaigns aimed at educating AAPI youth about mental illness. Even national organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness has information on mental illness and recovery in a selection of Asian languages.

The growing attention on the mental health of AAPI students and the larger AAPI community in general is a positive sign of good things to come, and I am excited to see how the current policies, initiatives, and programs play out in the long term. But we haven’t reached our happy ending yet.

In other words, what can still be improved?

The burden of starting a conversation and changing the way that mental health is addressed in the AAPI community cannot solely be left for us to shoulder. An online toolkit and an informational page on depression or schizophrenia may need to overcome more than a language barrier.

How else how can I start a conversation about mental health with my parents when I may have never learned the word for “mental health” in Chinese? How do I voice what is very often considered a silent taboo? And how do I even begin and then sustain a conversation about mental health when I am told to disregard those who may just be “stuck in their old ways”? When Cornell implements a “Let’s Talk” program where counselors visit student spaces and offer consultations that won’t be recorded in official medical records, what kind of message are we sending about how mental health is addressed in the AAPI family space? And when other universities adopt this model, how many of those counselors themselves identify as AAPI?

Furthermore, when policymakers focus on aiding AAPI students or youth struggling to make decisions regarding their mental health, they cannot forget that many of these AAPI youth do not stand alone. There also need to be a focus on reaching out to AAPI families; there needs to be strategy that seeks to educate our older AAPI brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles, and that education needs to be culturally competent. There is more than a mere language barrier that must be broken.

This is not meant to ridicule the work of mental health professionals in higher education. I simply mean to ask, at the end of the day, how do we really go about exploring mental health in the AAPI community?

We need a better support system that both guides AAPI youth when they navigate mental health services and reaches out to other members of the AAPI community as well.