Protecting mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for most people, especially Asian Americans, who have been unfairly used as scapegoats. With the president leading others to use the term “China virus,” hate crimes and other forms of racism and aggression toward Asian Americans have surged, harming the community’s mental health. However, even before the pandemic, mental health in the Asian American community has been an imperative topic.
The umbrella term “Asian American” covers millions of people of diverse ethnicities and personal experiences, and many of us share experiences that have a negative impact on mental health. Intergenerational trauma, immigrant or refugee journeys, experiences of racism, and stereotyping including the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner label are all factors that contribute to our mental health struggles. In fact, suicide was the 8th leading cause of death for Asian Americans, whereas it was the 11th leading cause of death for all racial groups combined.
As a teenager in the late 1990s, I was not equipped to address my mental health struggles. Everyone encouraged me to hide my crippling anxiety, depression, and insomnia, to protect me from the stigma of mental illness. It was easier to celebrate my stellar grades and extracurricular accomplishments and ignore the signs of the rest. In reality, academic or career successes should never be used as a sole indicator of good mental health.
After living in hiding with my bipolar disorder for nearly two decades, I stepped out of the shadows to become a writer and speaker advocating for mental health wellness. My personal mission became changing the narrative on mental illness by sharing my story to comfort those who are struggling. The fight against stigma is daunting, but along the way, I’ve crossed paths and joined forces with several inspiring advocates who are fighting alongside me.
“When people hear that I have a mental illness, they become afraid of me. I didn’t know why until I learned that fear is a function of ignorance. Ignorance of what people with mental illnesses look like. Of how we live and act. Of who we are and how capable we are.” -Pooja Mehta
Pooja Mehta, for example, is the unstoppable mastermind behind Project I Define Me, an Instagram project whose mission is to humanize people living with mental illnesses. After living with schizoaffective disorder, Mehta has made it her life’s mission to fight mental health stigma.
By showcasing photos with personal, heartfelt short stories, the project’s goal is to change society’s stigmatized narrative by showing us not as dangerous, not as criminals or threats, but as human beings who love, dream, and thrive. Mehta is eager to prove that those of us who live with mental illness are not defined by our diagnoses, but instead by how we choose to be defined. A graduate of Duke University, she is now working on her Masters in Public Health at Columbia University and dreams of making healthcare accessible to marginalized communities.
“Growing up, I had a secret: I have bipolar disorder, and I didn’t believe I deserved the air I breathed. After surviving a series of suicide attempts, I found healing from an unexpected source: writing. In writing letters to strangers, I realized that I wasn’t alone – I never was alone.” – Diana Chao
Chao poured her heart out in anonymous letters, finding the release to be a lifeline as she struggled with suicidal ideation. The initiative has grown into a global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit seeking to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to help. L2S currently impacts over 35,000 people on six continents. Now a student at Princeton University, Diana proves the limitlessness of her bright future to the world every day through everything at which she excels, including photography, writing, and public speaking.
“Mental health matters; mental health is personal. I fight because I can’t bear it otherwise,” said Chao, whose work in mental health advocacy has won many deserving accolades, including a 2019 health hero spotlight in O, The Oprah Magazine.
Yin J. Li
“I first went to therapy in my early 20s. I remember sitting in my car before my first appointment, terrified and overwhelmed with anger, shame, and grief. I didn’t know it at the time but that first therapy session would change the course of my life.” -Yin J. Li, MA LMFT
Yin J. Li, MA LMFT, founded Asians Do Therapy to reduce stigma and increase accessibility to therapy by sharing stories from Asian Americans. As a child of working-class immigrants, Li understood firsthand the shame and stigma of seeking help for her mental health.
Li’s goal is to support those who are suffering, oftentimes in isolation, by promoting culturally relevant information through Asians Do Therapy so that more Asian Americans will seek therapy as an available resource.
“I tell my story with the knowing that our stories are tools for liberation. I speak knowing that all of our voices are important.” -Mia Mingus
Mia Mingus is a disability justice organizer and an all-around badass. She’s a powerful champion for all who live with disabilities including those living with mental illnesses, who are sometimes overlooked during justice discussions. For example, psychiatric disabilities were not included in the American Disabilities Act (ADA) until the 2008 amendment.
Mingus, who identifies as a queer, physically disabled Korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee, said during a past Queer & Asian Conference, “I want to specifically name my privilege as a disabled person when so many of us are locked up in prisons, institutions, group homes, or in the back rooms of our families’ houses. I have a level of mobility that many disabled folks don’t have and I know it is a huge reason I am visible. As someone who is physically disabled and does not have mental or cognitive disabilities, I know how privileged it is to get to speak from the mic to a crowd full of people and be listened to.”
Mingus’ commanding words remind me of my own privilege, as I am someone who is able-bodied and lives with a mental health disability that can pass unnoticed into privileged spaces most of the time. Her tireless work is truly inspiring as she continues to demonstrate why we need to band together against stigma and ableism.
Additional resources can be found at the Asian Mental Health Collective, born out of a very active Facebook group called Subtle Asian Mental Health with over 35,000 members. The Collective’s projects include a monthly live stream Q&A series called Ask a Therapist, a community blog, a network for Asian mental health professionals, as well as an excellent Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Therapist Directory.
Subconscious is another nonprofit organization of dedicated Asian American advocates harnessing the power of storytelling to fight mental health stigma. They also organize an annual Race Against Stigma 5K along with other events for their 200K followers to carry out their mission of empowering the individual, building empathy and understanding, and promoting mental health literacy for everyone.
These mental health advocates and I share a common vision. We are all committed to showing people struggling with mental illness that it is not a death sentence. There is no shame in seeking help, so please don’t suffer alone and please don’t give up hope, because so many of us have been there and made it through to the other side. Society’s attitude on mental health is changing, benefitting from increased awareness and empathy. With time and healing, nothing will feel insurmountable.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911 or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.