Washington Leadership Program: An AANHPI Perspective on Mental Health

An AANHPI Perspective on Mental Health | Written By: Victoria Ma, 2016 Fellow


Ma1Left to Right: Viraj Patel, Shamyla Tareen, Juliet Bui. Photography by Mary Pham of CAPAL and WLP

The Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership’s Washington Leadership Program (CAPAL-WLP) Session on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 focused on Asian American/Native Hawai’ian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) mental health and featured Viraj Patel, Associate Director at the Pan-Asian American Community House at the University of Pennsylvania, Juliet Bui, Public Health Advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, and Shamyla Tareen, social worker and recipient of the 2012 “Be the Change” Award for Counselors Helping Asians and Indians (CHAI) for battling stigma in the South Asian community.

The session began with a “join in” activity led by Patel. She asked a Yes or No question, and audience members raised their hands. Most notably, nearly every attendee raised their hands “Yes” for having a strong interest in AANHPI mental health, and many more than expected raised their hands “Yes” for wanting to engage family members in dialogue about AANHPPI mental health.

The major topics of importance to the panelists were as follows: Tareen noted that, in her practice, the silence of AANHPI and the extreme shame and stigma they experience is an enormous barrier to seeking mental health services. Bui agreed that the stigma against mental illness in AANHPI communities is a barrier, and in her experience on the federal side, a barrier to implementing mental health policy. Patel succinctly summarized by affirming, “the model minority myth is unavoidable.”

Challenges facing AANHPI communities are numerous. Tareen mentioned the statistic that, though it is widely known that 25% of U.S. citizens have mental illness, the rate is underreported in AANHPI communities. The biggest problem, again, is the shame that labels those who ‘come out’ as having mental illness. Patel elucidated on a structural issue: to become a counselor, often one goes through a Masters program that is not culturally sensitive enough, with most programs excluding education on how to connect with and treat AANHPI clients. The diversity of the AANHPI population, added Bui—language, culture, socioeconomic variation, immigration status, trauma, cross-cultural historical tensions—is also so vast and neglected in American common knowledge. Bui noted the alarming data gaps in AANHPI mental health research. For example, it is not widely known that AANHPI women experience worse or equal body image compared to their white counterparts, said Patel, as noted in a 2004 and 2006 study.



Audience members answer “Yes” to one of Viraj Patel’s ‘join in’ activity questions. Photography by Mary Pham of CAPAL-WLP.

There are many problems and challenges facing our people when it comes to talking about mental health. How can we help? Tareen emphasized the importance of taking initiative. Start the conversation! Let friends and family know that you are concerned about them, offer to walk them to the campus counseling center, offer to help pay their first co-pay. Bui offered www.mentalhealth.gov as a resource for community organizers. “Fetishizing a lack of sleep,” quipped Patel, is also a very relatable issue for the targets of the model minority myth. We as a population oftentimes fall into the harmful trap of competing to work the hardest and sleep the least. Obviously, being overworked and exhausted severely limits the mental and emotional capabilities of humans to respond to stressors, and also decreases the ability of the immune system to respond to disease. Lack of sleep is bad, so don’t follow the crowd, cautioned Patel.

The panelists also gave tips for self care. All spoke about the misunderstanding of the term “self care.” Many people believe it means treating yourself in a big way, but really small steps taken to relax the body and mind, as well as to refocus on the moment, are also key components of self care. Patel described a remarkable event that occurred as a result of student organizing at the University of Pennsylvania. Students submitted anonymous stories their experiences surrounding mental health, and a group organized to read them, one by one, out loud under a tree on a popular lawn. Patel remembered it as an extremely quiet and soothing experience that healed. Bui, offering a necessary broader perspective, suggested riding the momentum of recent media coverage to spur urgency with the federal administration. She also noted that SAMHSA has funding for campus suicide prevention programs. She is also a badass kickboxer. Tareen talked about a website that matches counselors to clients based on cultural background and preference over a Skype type format, called “Talk Space,” and also a mental health text crisis line at 741-741. In addition, Tareen is an avid user of meditation phone applications.

At the end of the conversation, some key points were made. Bui emphasized the need in federal government for a focus on cultural and language competency, as well as health literacy education for AANHPI people. No matter what education and cultural background, it is never safe to assume that any patient is capable of digesting vast amounts of medical and healthcare jargon without further assistance and follow-up on the part of health care providers and professionals. The importance of health literacy is compounded with the massive complexity of mental health, due to the enormous range and variation in treatments and diagnoses.

Below is a list of resources mentioned in this blog post, as well as more self-counseling resources I received as recommendations from Shamyla Tareen in an email follow-up. Additionally, I have included the link to my own personal blog post on SELF care, S.E.L.F. standing for the four daily pillars of self care: Sleep, Exercise, Leisure, and Food.

Community organizing resources