Cultivating a space for Asian mental health conversations

Mental health for Asians is a taboo topic for many. But Subtle Asian Mental Health sought to change that, leading to a movement that changed how we talk and think about Asian mental health.

Breaking AAPI mental health myths

As our generation undertakes more honest conversations around Asian mental health, we’re toppling barriers and traditions long established by our parents and grandparents.

This is what therapist Christopher Vo and his colleagues actively seek to change. 

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Vo

When Subtle Asian Traits began in 2018, several subgroups formed over the years. That included Subtle Asian Mental Health (SAMH) Facebook group that created a space for Asian people – with a general age range between 18 to 28 –to openly discuss their mental health and be vulnerable.

Christopher Vo, a mental health professional based out of Houston, joined SAMH as one of the first thousand members, recognizing its potential early on. Vo became one of the mental health professionals that would help guide the online conversations. 

He watched how SAMH grew quickly in just three years – to nearly 60,000 members today. As a mental health professional and advocate of the group’s mission, he knew recruiting more Asian mental health professionals was vital.

The constant need to help for the Asian community sparked a network of job opportunities for mental health professionals. Something that led Vo along with five other executive members to found the Asian Mental Health Collective (AMHC). 

AMHC is a nonprofit organization that aspires to make mental health services more accessible to the AAPI community. It’s done through the SAMH Facebook group, a library of resources, video web-series, and meetup groups.

Vo sat down with the Cold Tea Collective and shared his thoughts on widespread issues in the Asian mental health diaspora; helping our family on their own journeys; and how a Facebook group grew into a national nonprofit.

Creating an organization aimed at Asian mental health

Photo Credit: Asian Mental Health Collective

Even while SAMH provided a safe place to be vulnerable, individuals still struggled to talk about their mental health. This is largely why AMHC and the therapist directories were created – to make mental health more accessible.  It became a national organization and community of support to end the stigma against Asian mental health.

Vo – who still feels imposter syndrome sometimes while being an AMHC leader and therapist – feels blessed to be able to give back to the community. 

“I’m constantly tired because the job never ends,” said Vo, “The world doesn’t stop… You just keep going.”

AMHC created support groups as well as job opportunities for Asian mental health professionals. The organization created a mentorship program for aspiring and associate mental health professionals to connect them with current licensed individuals. They have begun offering training for aspiring therapists, hoping to promote and grow the field of Asian mental health professionals. 

From this organization spawned the first Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian American (APISAA) Therapist Directory and the first Asian Canadian (ACTD) Therapist Directory.

Now AMHC Chief of Operations, Vo said they have further worked to disperse funds, partner with corporations, as well as hold annual mental health conferences. The events have garnered of the likes of former Olympian Apolo Ohno, journalist Lisa Ling, Wong Fu Productions, AJ Raphael and more.

Sparking mental health conversations

While he finds the concept Asian monolith to be problematic, Vo points to the majority of Asian cultures sharing common concepts. Ideas such as of honor or saving face. Those kinds of values feed into the collective stigmatization of mental health across the Asian diaspora.

In the early days of SAMH, Vo watched the conversations unfold and noticed how little we understood our mental health.

“There was a lot of [people] apologizing about their own feelings,” said Vo of the posts he saw on SAMH.

Photo Credit: Priscilla Du Preez

Then COVID-19 hit. According to Vo, SAMH saw an uptick of posts about of racism, identity, isolation anxiety, and an exacerbation of family issues.

As a therapist, it broke his heart, he said, to see people question their feelings. Many showed how hesitant they were to seeking help and even questioned if they were allowed to ask for it. 

Despite a 17.3% lifetime rate of psychiatric disorders among the community, Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than other ethnic groups.  

“[Asian] culture can be very empowering,” Vo said. “But it can also be limiting because of the fact that it ties into the concept of shame, guilt to express vulnerability.”

Finding signs in our elders

Another important and common theme SAMH saw before and throughout the pandemic was how to communicate with our elders about mental health

“At least in my language, they don’t have words for depression and anxiety”, he said. 

Photo Credit: Farrinni

Vo pointed to the 18-to-28 age demographic of SAMH and how there is a massive gap between first and second generations when expressing themselves.

Oftentimes, our parents, aunts, uncles, and elders may react to us voicing our mental health issues with a blank face. They don’t know how to fully grasp the concepts or express empathy.

The first generation oftentimes don’t express depression, anxiety, or sadness the same ways we do. 

“So anxiety or depression may sound more like, ‘I’m tired;’‘I have a pain in my stomach;’ ‘I have a headache;’ ‘my thoughts are moving faster;’” Vo said. “You have to meet them where they are at, constantly.” 

We must recognize the limitations of our parents as they did not have the privilege to attend to their mental health as we do through institutions such as SAMH or AMHC.

Vo remarked how many immigrant and first generation families were focused on survival instead of things like mental health. However, Vo said that doesn’t excuse when they pass down that trauma. 

“There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy,” said Vo. “You can empathize with the situation and understand where they’re coming from, without necessarily giving them a pass for the hurt that they have caused.”

Breaking intergenerational trauma

Photo Credit: Chetan Hireholi

According to Vo, not passing down trauma is an incredibly difficult journey. It takes a stupendous amount of work and self-actualization to recognize that being able to be aware of our own actions, to uncover your own internal biases, or to make a conscious decision not to pass down generational trauma is a place of privilege. This is how we end the cycle, said Vo. 

He suggests that we find a therapist that identifies with our elders, that can speak the same language fluently. Our first generation relatives also often respect titles more, so we can perhaps utilize that to our advantage and find someone with a PhD – an impressive title that every Asian parent understands. 

“Mental health is something that should be addressed for everyone,” said Vo. “[It’s] not only us right now going through that journey, but also our parents, our grandparents, and our children that will come after us.”

Feature Photo Credit: Eutah Mizushima

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