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Breaking barriers to mental health care in Asian communities: 5 question, answered by an expert

Jeanie Chang, board president of the Asian Mental Health Collective. (Courtesy of Jeanie Chang)
Jeanie Chang, board president of the Asian Mental Health Collective. (Courtesy of Jeanie Chang)

Two deadly mass shootings in California this month targeted Asian communities in the state, leaving Asian residents coping with this collective trauma.

The nonprofit Asian Mental Health Collective started during the pandemic to provide free therapy and combat the stigma associated with seeking mental health care. After the shootings, the collective has begun mobilizing counselors around the country to provide culturally-competent mental care.

“It is a very shame and guilt-based culture,” says Jeanie Chang, board president of the Asian Mental Health Collective. “It runs deep, the stigma, because of that. They feel like you should be a certain way: stoic, calm.”

5 questions with Jeanie Chang about mental health in Asian communities

How does trauma from these instances of violence compound?

“We’re talking about vicarious trauma. That is the trauma that just accumulates over time. Generally speaking, vicarious trauma hits first responders, doctors and clinicians. But for the general public to be hit by this because of shooting after shooting, anti-Asian hate, it’s a lot for us to take. So that is the sad thing. I’m seeing lots of folks in despair. That’s the word I’m hearing a lot.”

Why is there a stigma against mental health care in Asian cultures?

“It runs deep in Buddhism and Confucianism, where it’s about peace and harmony. So of course, when you have these difficult emotions, they don’t look like they’re peaceful and harmonious. So I think lots of folks feel like there’s something wrong with you.”

What is the importance of culturally-competent care?

“I highly recommend, especially about an Asian-American Pacific Islander community where stigma runs deep, that it does matter that the clinician we see understands your background, which is why the Asian Mental Health Collective came up with that therapist directory. We were like, ‘We have to come up with something to make it easily accessible, reachable for folks to seek therapy.’

“It doesn’t mean you have to see an Asian therapist if you’re Asian, but of course, you don’t have to explain the nuances of the culture. You don’t have to say, ‘Hey, the stigma runs deep.’ The therapist gets it.”

Only 5% of psychologists in the U.S. are Asian. Is that statistic growing?

“I mentor a lot of graduate students, and I’m seeing lots more Asian therapists coming to light and being like, ‘I want to be in this field. I’ve learned a lot from my parents and grandparents and I want to change the state of psychology that we have today.’ So that’s the hope that there are more Asian clinicians coming.”

What is the importance of continuing this work even when crimes against Asian communities aren’t making headlines?

“The more we talk about it, the more it’s normalized, destigmatized. We’ll keep talking about it. And I want to say at this point, it’s so encouraging to see the [Asian and Pacific Islander] community come together saying, ‘Hey, we need to elevate our voices, speak out, speak up, lean in.’

“Out of a crisis comes an opportunity. And here’s our opportunity to keep those conversations going.”

Ashley Locke and Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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