Chien-Chi Huang has fought to connect local Asian American communities with mental health resources for years. She has organized mental health forums, held social hours designed to promote self-care, and trained to be a mental health peer advocate.
But Huang found that COVID-19, with its crushing isolation and the wave of anti-Asian violence that followed, has sparked a broader conversation about mental health issues, as has a growing number of high-profile Asian Americans speaking out about their own struggles during the pandemic and beyond.
“When the mental health movement started, it usually wouldn’t get a lot of attention except from white people,” said Huang, founder and director of the Boston-based nonprofit Asian Women for Health, which will host its annual Asian American Mental Health Forum Saturday. But “when you see celebrities that look like you also have these kinds of problems, it normalizes the actions to seek help.”
A recent social media post by Taiwanese American actress Constance Wu is the latest example of that evolution. On July 14, Wu revealed in a statement that she’d attempted suicide after facing backlash to a 2019 tweet in which she’d voiced disappointment that the show she starred in, ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat,” had been renewed for another season. She’d quickly clarified she was only disappointed because she had to “give up another project [she] was really passionate about,” but it was too late. The hateful messages flooded in.
“I felt awful about what I’d said, and when a few DMs from a fellow Asian actress told me I’d become a blight on the Asian American community, I started feeling like I didn’t even deserve to live anymore. That I was a disgrace to [Asian Americans], and they’d be better off without me,” she wrote in her statement.
Wu’s post is a big deal, local organization leaders say, because many Asian Americans are reluctant to discuss or seek help for mental health concerns. The National Latino and Asian American Study found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are one-third as likely to use mental health services as white people, despite experiencing “a sizable burden of mental illness.”
The forum Stop AAPI Hate published a national report this month on hate and violence targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The organization tallied nearly 11,500 reports of anti-Asian harassment, discrimination, and attacks from March 2020 through March 2022. Asian Americans who experience COVID-related racism reported increased levels of anxiety, depression, and PTSD, researchers found last year.
Boston organizations serving Asian American communities say they’ve seen an uptick in people seeking mental health services. To meet that need, they’ve created culturally sensitive mental health programming and adding professionally trained staff.
VietAID, a group that serves Dorchester’s Vietnamese community, plans this fall to launch a two-year mental health program in response to increased community interest.
The program is still in its planning stages, the nonprofit’s director Lisette Le said, but it plans to use group conversations and activities to accommodate those who might be uncomfortable sharing their experiences.
“When Asian American spokespeople, celebrities, well-known folks talk about mental health, it’s a reminder that the Asian American community is not a monolith model minority. It opens up a conversation about what is mental health and that it’s OK to talk about it without stigmatizing it,” Le said.
The pressure Wu may have felt as one of a few prominent Asian American actresses in the United States is common for those who are minorities in their fields, Le said, and an issue VietAID hopes to address.
Several local organizations said increasing demand for services comes with the need for more resources — something they haven’t had access to. Historically, Asian-focused groups of any type have received a tiny percentage of grant funding. One 2018 report found that of every $100 awarded by foundations in the United States, 20 cents has been designated for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
However, local foundations have recently sought to change that. The Asian Community Fund at the Boston Foundation, established in 2020, announced in July that its first wave of grants, totaling $240,000, would be distributed to 35 nonprofits. Nearly a dozen of those, including VietAID, received funds specifically to create a new AAPI Mental Health Collaborative.
Last fall, the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which assists youths and families, secured additional funding from the state budget to aid mental health programming with the help of state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. The center’s CEO, Ben Hires, said the funding was used to accommodate a four-fold increase in people looking for help during the pandemic.
“People coming from other countries and cultural backgrounds have grown up in totally different contexts when talking about some of these sensitive issues, and some might not even go ask for help and services because they don’t want to admit that they or their child may have a special need,” Hires said.
While the stigma surrounding mental health can keep people from seeking help, community groups say there is also a shortage of bilingual and bicultural mental health professionals who understand the issues that first- and second-generation populations face.
William James College in Newton has worked to increase the number of trained professionals by creating the first clinical doctoral psychology program in the United States with a focus on Asian mental health.
The program’s director, Catherine Vuky, said the college began developing the program after its inaugural Asian mental health conference in 2018. Vuky said the program is part of the college’s commitment to “meeting the needs of underserved populations, providing psychological services, and training culturally sensitive clinicians.”
Other groups have worked to add nonclinical mental health resources. Hires said some of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center’s staff were trained by a Mental Health First Aid program to identify early warning signs of mental health challenges and reduce stigma. They’ve since used what they learned to train other Asian community providers.
“If you’re just doing things in an English or mainstream American way, it’s very likely not going to be as effective with our immigrant populations,” Hires said. “When a network of education happens, by word of mouth, you get to have this wave of understanding where people see that their neighbor or friend has … improved their life.”
The needs differ by generation as well, according to Angela Tsai, who serves as a peer counselor for the youth-centered Boston organization Massachusetts Asian + Pacific Islanders for Health.
The group has gotten increased requests for support from young people and in April began offering one-on-one mentorship, where AAPI youth can speak with people like Tsai, who’s college-aged. Tsai works in the organization’s Asian Pride section, which helps foster community for queer Asian young people and addresses issues faced by those with intersecting identities.
“There’s certain aspects of your identity that you don’t need to feel like you need to explain because everyone gets it,” she said. “I feel like my younger self would have really appreciated this type of organization.”
Melissa Wong, chair of the group’s board of directors, said the organization has also promoted activities and discussions on social media to reach more youth and alleviate feelings of isolation.
“I can’t imagine it’s easy for individuals to come out and be open [about mental health], but it’s absolutely critical, especially people who are well-respected or well-known in the community, like Constance Wu,” Wong said.
“There’s an entitlement issue, that we’re not allowed to want more, and we all have to be happy with what we have,” she added. “That’s wrong, and we need to be able to be vocal about it.”