Mental health in Asian American communities: Why we must break the silence together

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of NextShark.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as well as Mental Health Awareness month. It is a unique time to be an Asian American psychologist, as it is the one month in which Asian American mental health issues become highlighted across many platforms. I am often asked, “What is the state of Asian American mental health?” Truth be told, less than three years ago, it was a topic that was mostly siloed within cultural competency courses in graduate schools, and rarely discussed by the public. People were not accustomed to acknowledging Asian American identity, and even less attention was placed on exploring Asian American mental health.

Suddenly, COVID-19 and the rise of anti-Asian hate started to permeate the everyday lives of Asians across the world. We witnessed and read about them being brutalized and verbally attacked. Especially painful were the videos of Asian elders being assaulted. All these terrifying events during the loneliness of a pandemic-induced lockdown only furthered our sense of isolation. The parts of ourselves that knew anti-Asian racism existed long before the pandemic began were brought to the forefront of our consciousnesses, and our collective mental health suffered greatly in response. For many of us, this collective trauma activated childhood memories of discrimination toward our immigrant parents, as well as forgotten experiences of being “othered” by our peers. We have buried those experiences so deep in our psyches that we may not have even remembered that we experienced such discrimination. It has been difficult not to waver between hopelessness and rage over these past two years.

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Despite these racialized experiences within our families and community, many of us found ourselves as young adults trying to navigate the consequences of the model minority label. As Asian Americans, we are often expected to perform well and excel everything while always being agreeable. We learned how to code-switch with a smile, even in the face of blatant microaggressions. But what if certain aspects of the model minority myth were, in fact, a trauma response? In trauma literature, there are the more commonly known trauma responses such as Fight, Flight and Flee. But the Feign Response, one of the lesser-known ones, is worth exploring. Feigning is a protective response in which we may appease, defer or comply with others to protect ourselves from future attacks. When faced with a potential threat, we might instinctually make ourselves smaller, more docile or even invisible. These people-pleasing behaviors may have helped our parents and earlier Asian immigrants survive systemic injustices that plagued our people for generations. However, what began as an adaptive response for our community in the face of decades of mistreatment might have unwittingly contributed to the Asian stereotypes we work so hard to overcome.

Now, we must challenge the narrative. This process of unlearning can be difficult within a culture that often chooses to suppress pain instead of verbalizing it, but there are steps we can take to move in a direction of progress. We must first acknowledge our emotions and name the injustices we experience. Then, we must start externalizing oppression and hold those who do harm accountable. This accountability may be necessary in our schools, neighborhoods or workplaces. It may call upon us to be courageous and assertive. It may require us to seek community solidarity to persist in the face of injustice. But compliance is no longer an effective strategy for our community – developing a voice must become an intentional practice.

Silence has long been another problematic aspect of the model minority myth. It is particularly dangerous because it can fuel shame within communities, which is a direct threat to our mental health. Silence has left many of our racialized experiences unexplored, making it difficult to name the racist structures in our lives. Moreover, many of our parents cautioned us to not “rock the boat” and to stay silent in the face of mistreatment. As people of color, protesting and fighting back against inequity can prompt dangerous retaliation, which is why family members encourage us to comply in order to protect us. Furthermore, our silence makes it seem as if we are living our best lives. But when we are silent, we are cut off from empathy and compassion from others. This also allows us to repeat harmful identity stories that keep us suffering, both alone and together. And though silence may have been how many of our parents and ancestors endured their hardships and trials, our generation must refuse to be silent – it is costing our community far too much. 

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Moving toward each other and breaking the silence can be uncomfortable in a community that glorifies achievement and self-reliance, but it is a worthy pursuit for the sake of our mental health. For some, breaking the silence may involve putting words to emotions and sharing them with people we deem safe. For others, it might include seeking therapy, medication or both to support a life well-lived. Our willingness to show our vulnerability, our struggles in the face of challenge and our heartache in the midst of grief all offer a glimpse into our humanity that has been erased by the model minority myth. 

So, my invitation to our community is this: Will you help us break the silence surrounding mental health? If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

 

Author Bio: Dr. Jenny Wang is a Taiwanese American clinical psychologist and national speaker on Asian American mental health and racial trauma in Asian American, BIPOC and immigrant communities. She is the founder of the @asiansformentalhealth Instagram community, in which she discusses the unique experiences of Asian diaspora and immigrant communities. Her forthcoming book, “Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans” will be out May 2022 from Balance Publishing.

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