This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It’s also Mental Health Awareness Month. The alignment wasn’t planned, but it’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on a community that is facing both increased discrimination and unique and urgent mental health needs. Discrimination faced by Asian Americans is not new, but the surge in anti-Asian incidents during the pandemic has created a mental health crisis among an already vulnerable population. This past year has seen a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism, including that directed toward Asian Americans. Part of that effort should include ending the stigma around mental health, widening access to mental health resources and highlighting the importance of self-care and proactively seeking help when it’s most needed.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., we have seen an alarming rise in hatred and discrimination directed at Asian Americans. Between March 2020 and February 2021, there were nearly 3,800 hate incidents reported, according to a report by Stop AAPI Hate. Another study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that anti-Asian hate crime surged in 2020 by 150% in the 16 largest U.S. cities. And then in March of this year, there were the shootings in Atlanta of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
In addition to immediate threats to physical safety, this crisis carries consequences for Asian Americans’ mental health. Research shows that Asian Americans who have faced discrimination related to the pandemic have increased levels of anxiety, depression and trouble sleeping. As Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says, “racism is a public health crisis.” Here’s what she wrote after the murder of George Floyd: “In addition to the consequences of structural racism, it is well-documented that racism itself is hard on a person’s health. Chronic stress caused by discrimination can trigger a cascade of adverse health outcomes, from high blood pressure and heart disease to immunodeficiency and accelerated aging.”
This is no less true for those working hard in the fight against racism. When you’re giving your time, energy and commitment to a purpose greater than yourself, it’s easy to sacrifice your individual well-being to the collective mission. Often, this pressure comes from within. For example, Asian Americans are less likely than other groups to seek help for mental health. This is partly due to the “model minority” stereotype: the toxic idea that Asian Americans are hardworking, quiet and compliant. “The mental health toll that Asian Americans have always had to live with has been one of invisibility,” says Sherry Wang, a professor at Santa Clara University. “Like colorblindness — not really seeing Asian Americans as people of color who struggle with issues of racism, poverty and health inequities.”
Addressing these wrongs will take systemic and institutional change, but also a realization of the importance of self-care. Far from being self-indulgent, self-care is what allows us to fight for what we believe in and sustain ourselves in the face of daunting, draining challenges. In fact, it was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks practiced yoga and even demonstrated it at events in Detroit, where she continued her activism and lived to the age of 92. In fact, so many of our best tools for nurturing our mental well-being — like mindfulness, meditation and yoga — have origins in Asia and South Asia. And the effectiveness of this rich source of ancient wisdom has long been validated by science.
In the face of the current crisis, a range of voices are sharing this wisdom at a time when it is urgently needed. “The first step in attaining community health is attaining self-health,” writes Siena Iwasaki Milbauer, for the Asian American Organizing Project. “Self-care is physical, like eating well, sleeping enough, and getting regular exercise. It is also mental. Having time to rest and recharge isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.” Or, as Helen H. Hsu, former president of the Asian American Psychological Association, puts it: “The work will always be there. If somebody needs some time for rest and self-care and to turn off the news for a bit, that’s OK.”
For more information, the Asian American Psychological Association has put together a list of resources on mental health, self-care, responding to racism and xenophobia, engaging in faith and spirituality, and allied organizations that support AAPI health here. And you can find ways to support the AAPI community here.