The mental health of Asian Americans takes a hit with racism on the rise: 'Wearing a mask effectively put a target on our back'

Jenny Wang, founder of @asiansformentalhealth Instagram community. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Wang)
Jenny Wang, founder of the Asians for Mental Health Instagram community. (Courtesy of Jenny Wang)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many professionals who are focused on serving some of the country’s most marginalized populations — and on changing the field of mental health while they’re at it. Read all the interviews here.

Jenny Wang

A Houston-based Taiwanese American licensed psychologist and founder of Instagram community Asians for Mental Health, which focuses on spreading awareness about Asian American mental health.

What’s unique about your platform and your private practice when it comes to serving Asian American clients?

What has been really important in terms of my work is how we think about mental health — which traditionally has been a very white-centric or Eurocentric field — in a way that really acknowledges and intersects with the identity of Asian Americans. So much of our cultural values and also the values associated with immigration into this country, and our experiences with racism, color our mental health and how we show up in society.

I think up until the point where I started this account, there were very few people kind of discussing these intersections. There are lots of mental health professionals who are on Instagram and social media who talk about mental health really broadly, but I was really craving content that centered Asian American voices. ... And I think what kind of creates interest is that it is spoken from a lens of Asian diaspora community.

How does that intersectionality reflect what’s missing in the mental health space?

A piece of the Asian American experience that we cannot ignore is the impact of racism and the “model minority myth” on Asian Americans. So some of the most prominent themes I noticed are that, for Asian American clients, there’s a high, high emphasis on perfectionism, because if you’re counted as a model minority, whether or not you fit that mold, there’s really nowhere to go but down, right? If you’re seen by society as these overachieving, highly educated, high-income wage earners, then any failure — any kind of perception of being not in that narrow definition of perfection — is terrifying. And ... how does that impact the reputation of our parents and our communities? Because our parents have sacrificed so much that we feel like we need to use our lives as a way to honor that sacrifice, so to speak.

Another theme that emerges is difficulties with self-advocacy. There’s a lot of narratives steeped around “you don’t want to be boastful.” But then how do you fight for a raise? How do you ask for what you want in a relationship? How do you speak up for the things that you need in your life? It becomes complex, because there’s lots of themes of obedience and deference in Asian parent-child relationships that then emerge into adulthood that might actually make it difficult for Asian Americans to speak up for themselves. ... As well as the long-standing “invisibilization” of Asian American experience: “They haven’t had it that bad, so they shouldn’t complain.”

How do you begin to unpack that with a client?

We start by questioning. We all walk around with these implicit rules about how we should function in our lives, and so what are these rules? Where did that perfectionistic mindset come from? And is that true that you need to function at 150 percent in every sphere of your life in order to have value? We then move towards, well, what is the cost of living under these rules? Because it costs us something to function in a mode of perfection — or it costs us something to think that we are lesser-than due to the effects of racism.

In what ways did the pandemic play into these existing themes or unveil others?

In the early stages, being Asian in America and wearing a mask effectively put a target on our back, because people could now displace all of their frustration and anger about all of these life changes onto an identifiable group of people. So until the point where states started mandating masking across the board, there were a lot of Asians who questioned, “Should I put a mask on? I should wear a mask to protect myself and others. And yet if I do so, I’m literally putting myself out there at risk for being harmed.” Then those early conversations started to evolve, because now we started seeing videos surfacing of these brutal and random attacks. And instead of moving to personal safety about ourselves, we started worrying about our parents, because a lot of the elders in our community were being attacked. And we started being worried about our kids, that our kids were being bullied at school.

How has all of this helped evolve the conversation about mental health within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community?

I do think that there’s a slight silver lining in all of this, in that people are becoming more open about things that, previously, we’ve been taught or encouraged to minimize — whether it be instances of racism or microaggression, whether it be speaking up in moments where others are getting attacked or we are getting attacked. I think that people in the Asian community are realizing that conforming and assimilation are not enough to protect us. And that ... the status or acceptance of Asian Americans has largely been conditional upon how people choose to view us at different points of history.

So I think that a great part is that people are finally speaking up. People are finally speaking their pain and people, I think, are becoming more open to reaching out for support, especially in the second, third, fourth generation of Asian Americans. I think that the more we share that “I’m going to therapy today” or “I’m taking medication for my depression,” that all moves the dial toward a community that will say: We need to start asking for help, because our communities cannot sustain this level of mental stress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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