7 Things Asians and AAPI Can Do to Cope With Mental Health Challenges

My Personal and Professional Suggestions as an Asian American Therapist

Advice

CW: Racial trauma; discrimination; suicide


As an Asian American immigrant who lived in a predominantly white school district, I almost always felt like an outsider. I rarely felt a sense of belongingness, a crucial component of psychological well-being (Van Ryzin et al., 2009). On top of feeling ‘othered,’ the message that I received and internalized from white America was that being Asian was something to be ashamed of. I took this message to heart, and often felt insecure, alienated, and out of place. From a desperate desire to rid myself of these feelings, I made every effort to fit into the dominant culture. I refused to speak Korean or wear traditional clothes in public, and mocked my community to better fit in with my white friends. Rejecting my background and competing with other Asians for a spot as the ‘token’ became an integral element of my identity—a survival mechanism. This behavior and mindset had become so powerful that learning to reclaim my Asian identity now, as an adult, is often a confusing and painful process.

As a mental health therapist, I often reflect on how my experiences have shaped me, particularly regarding my emotional well-being. Over the years, I have come to recognize that my continuous marginalization as an Asian American has, in many ways, contributed to the mental health challenges I still regularly face. 

Frequently having to code-switch between cultures—all while feeling exiled from both—made me feel sad, discontent, and irritable. Moreover, the intergenerational cultural dissonance between me and my parents oftentimes triggered stress and discomfort. I felt as though life was just filled with agony and despair. Through research, I found that Asian American girls and women have the highest rate of completed suicide (Arora et al., 2017).  I was not alone in my psychological distress. 

My experience with these emotional and mental health challenges, coupled with my passion for social justice, led me to pursue the counseling profession. Through education, empowerment, and support, I was able to develop healthy coping mechanisms that improved my well-being. This article aims to share some of those coping strategies. 

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that the claims and strategies I share are based on my own personal and professional observations, as well as psychological research data—it is not intended for every Asian or AAPI, nor is it a replacement for therapy itself. Not everyone has the luxury to practice all my strategies; even within the Asian and AAPI community, there are disparities and various levels of privilege. I invite readers to think critically and venture on their own unique journey of caring for their mental health. 

I also want to disclose that I still do struggle with my mental health (therapists are human, after all!). Emotional and mental health is extremely complex, and one article will certainly not be a ‘cure’ for anyone's battles. 

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1. Learn your History 

 

In my experience, Asian American history is not taught in school, at least not in depth. I recall feeling both excited and anxious when we learned about the Vietnam or Korean War (for maybe about 2 days?) because I was nervous that someone would make a racially insensitive comment—I would always cower in shame and embarrassment whenever this happened.  

Perhaps because Asian American history (or even just Asian history) is not widely taught in schools, I have found that many AAPIs are unaware of their history. 

History is significant in that it helps form identity (Wertsch, 1997). By whitewashing or neglecting their history, schools deprive Asian and AAPI students of an opportunity to learn about who they are. Awareness of the self is a crucial component of mental health—Maslow (1970) even claimed that self-awareness is, in part, a catalyst to alleviating the symptoms of mental disorders. So what message does this send to those who are rarely taught about their past? It teaches them that they don’t have an identity—at least not one worth learning about.

With that being said, I encourage Asians and AAPIs to learn their history. School might neglect our curriculum, but we can reclaim our power by reading texts, watching films, and attending lectures, that help us understand the struggles and triumphs of our community. One particular book that has been helpful to me is The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee, and I also look forward to watching the PBS documentary, Asian Americans, as I have heard that that is also a great resource. 

 

2. Find Community

 

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, one of the ways I attempted to survive white-dominated spaces was by being complicit with oppression. College provided a space for me to discuss my own experiences with discrimination and recognize how I had been contributing to ongoing injustices. From then on, I committed to a lifelong journey of learning and activism. 

 Not only did advocacy align with my newfound passion for helping others, but it also seemed to alleviate some of my mental health symptoms. Marching the streets and demanding for equity allowed me to see that—although this country may often make me feel small—I am not small, I am powerful.

As Tummala-Narra and Yang (2019) state, “. . . civic engagement and leadership offers new possibilities for empowerment and connection with others . . .” (p. 139).

Coupled with advocacy is community. Connecting with other people within your group (or those who share similar challenges) can enhance a sense of belongingness, which many Asians and AAPI report lacking (Carrera & Wei, 2017). 

All that being said, I suggest the following: write to a legislator, exercise your right to vote, attend marches, join Facebook support groups, follow AAPI Instagram or Twitter pages, create group chats with other AAPI people, seek group therapy (and other resources), and/or find a role model who shares similar traits and learn more about them—you deserve to feel closeness, connection, and solidarity in a world that can often make you feel different and alienated.

 

3. Reframe your Musts 

 

Due to the model minority myth, many Asians and AAPIs feel pressure to achieve good grades and enter high-paying professions (Kiang et al., 2017). Women, in particular, are often expected to have it all—intelligence, kindness, talent, the list goes on. 

Either by our parents or through society (or both), we are often taught what we ‘must’ do. Some examples include, “You must get good grades” and “You must become a doctor.” 

Although these ‘musts’ can be helpful in some cases—good grades can lead to opportunities—it can also be harmful to rely on such rigid thinking. When we convince ourselves and others that we have to do something, such as getting good grades or becoming a doctor, I believe that rigidity can be limiting, preventing us from reaching out true potential. 

Shifting away from ‘musts’ does not mean that we ought to stop getting an education and working hard in life. What I am suggesting is that we reframe the ‘musts’—perhaps to ‘cans’ (ex. “I can work to get good grades”). This way, studying becomes an option we have the power of choosing, rather than a burden that controls us. Additionally, cans encourage autonomy, flexibility, and adaptability—qualities that have been shown to correlate with improved mental health (Adams et al., 2017; Bond & Flexman, 2008). 

Though we cannot dismantle the model minority myth overnight, we can choose to reframe our ‘musts.’ We can allow ourselves to have options—that is how we empower and honor our humanness.

 

4. Practice Mindfulness

 

Trauma can be defined in many ways (van der Kolk, 2014). It can be a single catastrophic event such as combat, rape, or other physical violence. Trauma can also be chronic mistreatment, such as discrimination and oppression. One particular term that has been gaining traction over recent years is racial trauma. Racial trauma (i.e., race-based traumatic stress) results from discrimination, prejudice, and racism; it is experienced by many BIPOC in the U.S., especially Black people (Carter 2007). 

One common response to trauma is depersonalization (van der Kolk, 2014). Depersonalization is when you feel disconnected from your body—your body quite literally “blanks out” in an attempt to escape discomforting emotions and thoughts related to the painful event(s). Many clients who I work with often recall the events of their trauma in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact way—an indication that depersonalization may be taking place.

Although depersonalization can be advantageous in a lot of ways—it is, after all, your brain’s ‘survival’ mechanism—it can also present some disadvantages. Some people may find it difficult to be present in the moment—always detached from the world around them and letting life just ‘pass by’ (van der Kolk, 2014).

To practice becoming fully present in the here-and-now, I recommend engaging in grounding techniques. Deep breathing is helpful in that it forces you to pause and focus on the essential thing that keeps you alive—breathing. Similarly, mindfulness exercises can be helpful in that they encourage you to observe yourself and the space around you (van der Kolk, 2014). You can find both breathing and mindfulness exercises on apps like Calm or simply on YouTube (search “mindfulness exercises”). Some exercises may help more than others—try out a few and see which resonates with you. One important note is that mindfulness is a practice, and it often takes consistent practice to see promising results. Keep at it even if you don’t see immediate improvement or it feels like you’re not doing it ‘right’ (hint: there isn’t a ‘right’ way to practice mindfulness).

Another recommendation I have is to take an intentional moment to observe the environment around you with your five senses. Name things you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Other suggestions I have include dancing to music, drawing how you feel, and journaling. 

The bottom line is that your thoughts and feelings deserve to be felt—you deserve to experience the many beauties of life.

 

5. Visit your Inner Child

           

Childhood trauma can often prevent a child from fully experiencing their childhood. Some victims of childhood trauma are told that they are ‘mature for their age.’ Simply put, trauma can often ‘speed up’ the developmental process because the body perceives threat (Canady, 2020).

One way I treat childhood trauma is by visiting the ‘inner child.’ By doing so, my clients can become aware of how their maladaptive thoughts and behaviors originated, and essentially ‘heal’ past wounds (Hanh, 2010). Along these lines, they can enhance compassion, understanding, and empathy towards themself. Visiting the inner child also allows one to experience the childhood that was essentially taken away.

How one revisits their inner child varies depending on what works best for them. One of my go-to exercises is to have my clients write a letter to their past selves. I find that this is often an emotionally charging exercise, so I recommend you do it when you have ample amount of time to yourself. In this letter, you can write about the challenges your younger self faced, validate the emotions that came with the challenges, affirm positive qualities, and give advice. A sample of a letter to your inner child can be found here.

Other ways to connect with your inner child include engaging in visualization exercises, dialogues, childhood favorite activities, and journaling.

 

6. Express Gratitude


Studies have shown that expressing gratitude can have various positive effects on your life (Wong et al., 2015). Take a moment to reflect on who in your life has made you feel validated, strong, and worthy, and let them know the influence they had on you. I believe that this can be beneficial to the whole Asian and AAPI community as we uplift and appreciate one another in this way.

Another recommendation I have is to reflect and write down three things that you feel grateful for each day. Keep a small journal on your bed stand and jot down even the smallest things like “I saw a dog today!” If absolutely nothing has made you feel thankful that day, feel free to write ‘nothing’—sometimes life gives you lemons, and you don’t have to make lemonade.  

 

7. Rest


Last but not least, rest. We live in a society that can oftentimes be taxing and traumatic, especially for people of color. Yes, it is imperative to play an active role in fighting for justice, finding community, practicing mindfulness—on and on—but it is just as crucial, if not more, to allow ourselves to just exist without feeling guilt.

One can even argue that guiltless rest is a powerful means of advocacy, whether it be for yourself or your community—it creates a bold statement that you are worthy of peace and calm. 

Rest takes courage. Rest takes vulnerability. Rest takes practice.

But you are deserving, nevertheless.

 

References

Adams N., Little T. D., Ryan R. M. (2017) Self-Determination Theory. In Wehmeyer M., Shogren K., Little T., Lopez S. (Eds.), Development of Self-Determination Through the Life-Course. Springer, Dordrecht. 

Arora, P. G., Wheeler, L. A., Fisher, S., & Barnes, J. (2017). A prospective examination of anxiety as a predictor of depressive symptoms among Asian American early adolescent youth: The role of parent, peer, and teacher support and school engagement. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 23, 541-550. 

Bond, F. W. & Flaxman, P. E. (2006) The ability of psychological flexibility and job control to predict learning, job performance, and mental health, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26(1-2), 113-130.

Canady, V. A. (2020). Experiencing childhood trauma ages body, brain faster. Mental Health Weekly, 30(32), 7-8.

Carrera, S. G., & Wei, M. (2017). Thwarted belongingness, perceived burdensomeness, and depression among Asian Americans: A longitudinal study of interpersonal shame as a mediator and perfectionistic family discrepancy as a moderator. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(3), 280–291. 

Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(1), 13-105.

Hanh, T.N. (2010). Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Kiang, L., Huynh, V. W., Cheah, C. S. L., Wang, Y., & Yoshikawa, H. (2017). Moving beyond the model minority. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 8(1), 1-6.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Tummala-Narra, P. and Yang, E. (2019). Asian American adolescent girls: Navigating stress across multiple contexts. In T. Bryant-Davis (Eds.), Multicultural feminist therapy (pp. 113-153). American Psychological Association. 

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.

Van Ryzin, M. J., Gravely, A. A., & Roseth, C. J. (2009). Autonomy, belongingness, and engagement in school as contributors to adolescent psychological well-being. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 1-12. 

Wertsch, J. V. (1997). Narrative tools of history and identity. Culture and Psychology, 3(1), 5-20. 

Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018) Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.

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Edited by Kevin Gibbs

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