How surge in hate crimes is pushing Asian Americans to stand up for mental health – Press Enterprise | #elderly | #seniors | #execrise
In late March, Jackie Vu posted a typewritten, racist letter sent anonymously to her family’s nail salon in Riverside. She said she posted the letter not to draw attention to the business or how her family was affected, but to make the point that racism of any form is unacceptable.
“It’s 2021. I don’t have time to figure out why we still hate each other, or worry about my neighbors hating me because I’m Asian,” said the 32-year-old co-owner of Top 10 Nails & Spa. “The only thing people can’t take away from you is your peace.”
But for other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who find themselves the targets of racist incidents or hate crimes, peace remains elusive. For victims of such acts — as well as those who advocate for their communities through activism or nonprofit work, and those who fear for their own safety and that of their loved ones — the latest wave of hate crimes targeting AAPI community members has taken a severe mental toll.
The issue has sparked a national call to end to violence targeting the AAPI community, with the U.S. Senate on Thursday, April 22, overwhelmingly passing a bill denouncing anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination.
Long before Asian American residents found themselves blamed for the coronavirus pandemic or the March 16 Atlanta spa shootings that killed eight people, including six Asian women, many in the AAPI community were living in constant stress and fear, according to activists and community members. Perceived as the “model minority,” they are hyper-sexualized and viewed as perpetual foreigners, and taught to stay silent. Stigma, traditional values and cultural pressures, meanwhile, prevent many in the AAPI community from making their mental health a priority.
Serious mental illness rose from 2.9% to 5.6% in Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders ages 18-25 between 2008 and 2018, according to a 2018 national survey on drug use and health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. An older (2010) survey from the National Latino and Asian American Study found that only 8.6% of Asian Americans sought mental health services and resources, compared with 18% of the general U.S. population.
Vu, a Navy veteran who has been in therapy her whole life, said she wants to break the cultural stigmas surrounding mental health treatment. She takes medication and talks to her relatives and children about mental health. She prioritizes self-care activities such as spending time with friends, working out, tending to her houseplants, and doing her own and others’ nails. Vu said these things have helped her, as a victim of racism, process and express things more cohesively, including her thoughts on the letter sent to her family’s salon.
“Doing nails is not only therapeutic for me, but also for people who just want someone to talk to, or who need to be heard,” Vu said, likening the nail salon service to her counseling sessions. She enjoys the intimate conversations and different perspectives. “Going to therapy has given me a microphone for my inner dialogue.”
The Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers, which has locations in Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire, offers free mental health services — including counseling and therapy — for victims of hate attacks during the pandemic, with no health insurance requirement.
Dr. Sheila Wu, the centers’ director and a psychologist, said that hate attacks targeting Asian Americans “trigger intense emotional reactions, particularly when the attacks are against the most vulnerable elderly, children and women.” Intense emotions — anger, fear, panic, helplessness, even numbness — are “common, traumatic reactions that could be compounded by a history of trauma in different Asian American and Pacific Islander groups,” Wu said.
From the the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the experiences of Koreans during the 1992 Los Angeles riots to the attacks that targeted South Asian and Asian Muslim communities after Sept. 11, Wu said trauma from these and other events are a lot to unpack.
Repetitive historical events — paired with the stress of immigration and assimilation, language barriers, cultural isolation, economic struggles, and lack of access to health care — all are “psycho-social stressors” experienced in Asian communities, Wu said.
These events can exacerbate both physical and mental problems prompted by racist behaviors and hate attacks and lead to “more serious depressive, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders” across generations, she added.
The Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance has received three times the number of calls for mental health services over the last year compared to the year before, said executive director Mary Anne Foo. With just 10 clinical counselors, 15 case managers, and a growing number of calls from adults who are afraid to leave their homes, Foo said there’s now a waiting list for services.
“These are already people who were impacted by COVID-19,” she said. “The vaccine gave them a little hope. But, now, they are worried about who is going to protect them … especially after the Atlanta mass shootings, we’re seeing women who work in massage parlors, nail salons or caregiving talking about how they’re going to protect themselves.”
Foo said the past year has been a “rude shock,” especially in Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian communities, where elders fled war and strife in their countries of origin in search of freedom and security in the United States. The fear is palpable among all age groups, she said.
Foo said she has been working with several other community partners that work in Korean, Vietnamese and other Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Orange County to get people the help they need. There’s no question that recent events have brought up issues for community members, and this is the time to get help if they need it, she said, regardless of cultural stigma.
“With COVID-19 and the hate incidents, (people) feel the need to talk to someone,” she said. “People need to understand that this doesn’t mean they are mentally ill. You are simply seeking mental well-being. And that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Triggering past trauma
A survey published in March by the Southeast Asia Resource Center found that 29% of participants had trouble finding mental health services, because of a lack of multi-lingual resources or understanding of the mental health-care system. The survey included about 250 Asian Americans, largely Vietnamese and Cambodian respondents, across California.
The report found that Southeast Asian refugees and their children experience higher rates of mental health challenges than others because of past experiences of war, genocide and displacement.
Tricia Nguyen, CEO of Southland Integrated Services, a health clinic serving Orange County’s widespread Vietnamese community, shared a recent experience when White women ran over cones at the clinic’s COVID-19 vaccination sites, yelling: “Do you know why we have the vaccines? It’s because you guys caused the virus.”
Nguyen said this and other recent incidents have taken an emotional toll on staff at the clinic, which also provides mental health services to the community. Patients have said they’ve become more paranoid, losing their appetites and sleep.
“In our refugee community, people are already suffering from war-related PTSD. They feel stressed out, and like they’ve lost the freedom that they came here for in the first place. Some are wondering if they were safer in Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “The thought that someone can shoot you or physically assault you because you’re Asian – that brings the trauma right back.”
Dr. Kien Vuu, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA Health, said years of experiencing hate and discrimination growing up in Chinatown put him on a path to poor physical and mental health. At 37, Vuu was diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, which turned out to be a “wake-up call” for him.
“I was ashamed of my Asian, immigrant heritage. It led to depression and anxiety, but also poor health – and I’m a doctor,” Vuu said. “Our thoughts, our mindset, sense of purpose – all of it plays a part in our well-being. Hate has killed more people in this world than any virus.”
‘It’s OK to reach out’
On March 19, three days after the Atlanta shootings, 18-year-old Annie Nguyen helped to organize a candlelight vigil in her hometown of Eastvale. She said that she was upset about the attacks, but that embracing emotions in a healthy way can prompt people to grieve, then take action.
“Asian Americans oftentimes feel silenced and overlooked — now we’re talking openly about this. When we mourn together, there is power in that,” said Nguyen, a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and president of the Associated Student Body. “We understand that we’re going through not just a tough time, but a tough system. Now there are more Asian American stories in media, and that’s the first step. Then we recognize it’s OK to reach out for help.”
Like Nguyen, many young Asian Americans have been emotionally affected by the recent attacks. A 2020 report, “They Blamed Me Because I Am Asian” by the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign, surveyed nearly 1,000 Asian American youth nationwide, finding that eight out of 10 expressed anger over the current anti-Asian hate. The rise in racist incidents and attacks during the pandemic have caused feelings of self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear for families, even self-harm and depression, the report found.
Melody Cheng, co-host of the Los Angeles-based podcast Asian Boss Girl, said that when she heard about recent racist attacks on elderly Asian immigrants, she was reminded of her grandparents in the Bay Area and feared their safety.
“It hits me straight to the heart, to see people who look like my grandparents at the center of attacks,” Cheng said. “Asian grandparents are precious because they’re the ones who have been through so much. As immigrants, they silently went through their own pain, but they don’t ever put it on their (grandchildren). So for us, as this generation, we are their voice to protect them by using our platforms.”
Cheng and her co-hosts, Helen Wu and Janet Wang, discuss mental health and lifestyle topics on their weekly podcast for Asian American men and women. In February, they released an episode talking about the #StopAsianHate movement, and how to prioritize mental health amid the heavy headlines.
“Anyone who is constantly absorbing all of this information and news, it’s important for you to take care of yourself, or else it’s going to be hard for you to show up, to try and make change,” Wu said.
Wang said Asian Americans often “glaze over” and “repress” racist incidents, no matter the scale, because culturally they are taught to keep their head down and move forward. But emotions are important, she and her co-hosts said.
“Number one is to feel — feel all the fear, the sadness, the anger,” Wang said. “You need to feel to understand and develop your perspective. The first act of changing things is for you to recognize what’s happening, and then have the confidence to speak up.”