Asian American/Pacific Islander Mental Health Awareness
• May 2023 •
From Juan Navarro, Executive Director
Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Executive Director’s Message: Asian American/Pacific Islander Mental Health Awareness
The month of May marks two important opportunities: Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month and National Mental Health Awareness Month. I think it’s a good time to discuss both.
About 23.8 million people in the U.S. identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AA/Ps), and that’s 7.2% of all Americans. The group includes a broad group of people originally from the Asian continent, the Pacific islands of Melanesia and Micronesia, and from Polynesia. According to Congress, the month of May was chosen to commemorate immigration of the first Japanese people to the U.S. on May 7, 1843, and completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, which relied on Chinese immigrants.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have contributed a lot to American culture and society, including science and medicine, literature and art, sports and recreation, and to government, politics, activism, and law. In 2021, Kamala Harris became the first Asian American Vice President of the United States. That’s progress. The Pew Research Center reports that Asian Americans are the actually the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, growing 72% between 2000 and 2015. This shines a light on the growing economic and political power of Asian communities. The strengths of AA/PI people are well known; their purchasing power alone is expected to be $1.3 trillion in 2023. What is less known are the mental health challenges that our AA/PI community faces from immigration, discrimination and racism.
As do many others, Asian and Pacific Islanders can drink and use substances to cope with uncomfortable feelings. Research shows that 2.7 million AA/PIs have a mental and/or substance use disorder (SUD) – a rate lower than the general U.S. population. The challenge is that AA/PI people are the least likely to seek mental health services of any racial/ethnic group here. Services to treat trauma may be vital: a study reported that 70% of Southeast Asian refugees receiving mental health treatment were diagnosed with PTSD related to war, immigration, and cultural loss. Treatment barriers for AA/PI people include the group’s reputation as a ‘model minority’ for success and achievement. Lack of information on mental health is another important risk factor, together with associated stigma (especially among first-general immigrant AA/PIs) and denial or neglect of mental health issues.
If you know someone who needs multicultural assistance with substance use and mental illness, ask L.A. CADA for help. We’re here at (562) 906-2676.
“I’m Jasmine, and I’m saying what I thought I never would – I’m an addict. In my family, you don’t say stuff like that. It brings shame to the family and our culture. My family knew though, it was pretty obvious. Like in just one month, I overdosed, I got high at a family wedding and knocked my cousin out in front of everyone, and I went to jail for selling drugs at my nursing school. Then got kicked out of the nursing program. With all that, no one ever said I’m an addict. Where I come from in the Philippines, there’s a big war on drugs. How am I supposed to say I’m an addict to my family? They struggled to come here and make a life for me. The turning point came for me when I met an old friend from school after a long time. When we talked and she told me she was in AA. So, I finally admitted my own problem. She convinced me to come to a meeting. When I finally did, I realized I found my ‘tribe’ like they say. Today, I’m clean and sober two years, and working to become a kindergarten teacher.”
SPOTLIGHT – THE EVIDENCE IS IN ON:
For many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, mental health is strongly linked to physical health. It’s a common belief is that if one is physically healthy, one is more likely to be emotionally healthy. Emotional or psychological health is also believed to be strongly influenced by willpower or cognitive control. For example, when feeling sad, AA/PI people might try to not dwell on negative thoughts as an appropriate coping method. Many feel that focusing on one’s family or community and behaving in a way that maintains interpersonal harmony in the face of psychological distress shows strong will and emotional health. Many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders associate admitting to psychological problems with stigma and loss of face. As a result, many AA/PI people report physical manifestations of mental health issues as this is viewed as more acceptable than psychological symptoms.
Indigenous healing has long been a practice for many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Traditional healers are often religious leaders, community leaders or older family members. Religion/spirituality, community, and family are often seen as protective factors for the development of psychological distress among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. In treatment, culturally responsive treatment for AA/PI patients should include:
- Awareness of AA/PI cultural beliefs related to psychological distress and how they may influence symptoms
- Assessment of both physical and psychological symptoms of distress
- Development of treatment plans that match the explanatory model of Asian-American/Pacific Islander clients, providing explanation of the treatment model and how it will be of benefit
- Awareness of the environmental context in which their Asian-American/Pacific Islander clients live to addresses implications of treatment on the clients’ family members, as this will likely influence treatment adherence
- Knowledge of and respect for Asian-American/Pacific Islander indigenous healing practices
- Understanding of racism and oppression as mental health issues