Last month, Chicago-based writer Liuan Huska tweeted that she “can’t write or talk about getting a massage without feeling retraumatized” by the Atlanta spa murders in March that left eight people dead — six of them Asian women. Huska is Chinese American and her mother is a massage therapist.
With the documented rise in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, fueled at least in part by racist rhetoric blaming Chinese people for the COVID-19 pandemic, Huska is not alone in feeling race-based trauma. Recent polling found that one-third of Asian adults in the U.S. fear physical attacks and threats, and more than half the Asian American women interviewed in a separate poll conducted by National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, reported experiencing incidents of hate in the past two years. A recent report by Stop AAPI Hate, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Asian American Psychological Association found that Asian Americans who have experienced racism are more stressed by anti-Asian hate than the pandemic. Further, it found that 1 in 5 Asian Americans who have experienced racism show signs of racial trauma.
But unlike Huska, who has been able to process her grief with friends, family, and a professional, many Asian Americans have been unable to share the trauma they are feeling. While 18 percent of the general U.S. population seeks mental health services only 8.6 percent of Asian Americans do so. This discrepancy is especially stark when compared to white U.S. citizens, who access mental health services at three times the rate of Asian Americans.
“I think there might be a tendency, because we have encountered so much displacement, trauma, and discrimination [to assume] that it’s just a normal part of life. We don’t stop to deal with it — it’s just the cost of living in the U.S. as an Asian American,” Huska said.
According to AJ Chowdhury, Max Wei, and Alex Belzer of the American Medical Student Association, there are a number of reasons for this, including deep stigma in the Asian American community; a cultural expectation to “get over it”; a belief in the prevailing model minority myth; cultural expectations to rely on family rather than seeking outside help from a professional; and discrimination and the difficulty of cultural assimilation.
These barriers and stigmas around mental health services for Asian Americans are having a severe impact on the Asian American community. Asian American youth ages 15-24 are the only racial group whose leading cause of death is suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, Asian Americans are at high risk for PTSD; 1 in 2 Asian Americans will not seek help because of a language barrier.
Jeanette Lee, a licensed therapist practicing in Chicago, told Sojourners, “Some Asian Americans have experienced ‘big T’ Trauma: being physically assaulted in grotesque ways. As we've seen in the headlines, this has tragically been directed at our elderly, though I have heard of others also experiencing this. Many Asian Americans have also experienced ‘little t’ trauma: the trauma of living in fear and unpredictability; the trauma of racist epithets and harassment.”
Lee says she is seeing an increase in people of all ethnicities seeking mental health services at her own practice. According to Lee, many Asian Americans who have sought out her counseling say it is important to see someone with the same ethnic heritage or race; they are tired of having to explain the experience of being an Asian to someone who does not have a foundational knowledge of issues particular to the ethnicity and culture of Asian people. It’s important for marginalized groups to have access to professionals from their own communities.
What should be done to encourage more Asian Americans to seek out mental health services? How can faith-based communities help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health counseling?
Raymond Chang, president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and Wheaton College’s campus minister, believes pastors can normalize therapy by speaking about mental health from the pulpit and encouraging others to share their experiences with counseling and therapy. Chang also recommended group therapy, as it provides people with language to share their experiences and it offers participants the sense of not being alone.
In a 2018 article, writer, counselor, speaker, and spiritual director Sheila Wise Rowe wrote that we must "acknowledge the emotional, physical and spiritual toll that race-based traumatic stress has had on us, our families, and our communities.”
Lee emphasized that healing from racial trauma does not happen in a vacuum. “I think mental health is a community affair … true mental wellness requires a healthy net of relationships where we are doing life together,” Lee said.
In Luke 5, a paralyzed man was carried up on the roof and lowered down in the middle of the crowd to be healed by Jesus. When Jesus saw the faith of the men who did this — all of them collectively — he forgave the paralyzed man’s sins and healed him.
As a community of faith, we must do the same for the hurting Asian American community in our midst by acknowledging, naming, and addressing the racism against Asian Americans. We must structure our communities and churches in ways that support mental health services for those who experience both “little t” and “big T” trauma. We must make intentional paths through barriers and normalize therapy experiences for the sake of everyone.