AAPI Heritage Month: Uplifting Asian American Communities through Mental Health Awareness
Understanding the AAPI community involves understanding the challenges they face. A clinical psychologist discusses the importance of mental health access and social justice education within Asian American communities.
By: Rachel Lin
A month filled with celebration, reflection, and empowerment, May marks the celebration of Asian American Pacific and Islander heritage. Throughout this dedicated period, we commemorate the rich tapestry of cultures, diverse narratives, and remarkable achievements by AAPI people. From the Stop Asian Hate movement to the boom of Asian American representation in the media, the AAPI community has experienced moments of triumph as well as adversity over the past few years.
As we honor this heritage, it is crucial to shed light on an important and often overlooked aspect: Asian American mental health. In 2021, among adults with any mental illness in the past year, only 25% of Asian adults reported receiving mental health services compared to 52% of White adults. To better understand this, we turned to Dr. Grace S. Kim, a clinical Associate Professor in the Counseling Psychology & Applied Human Development Department at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
Dr. Kim is an expert on social justice education and Asian American psychology. Her research places a significant emphasis on resilience and Asian American mental health, highlighting their struggles to overcome challenges, assert their social agency, and solidarity with other marginalized communities. In addition, she is an Asian American Psychological Association fellow and the previous president of the American Psychological Association Division 35, Section 5 (Psychology of Asian Pacific American Women).
In this Q&A, Dr. Kim delves into the complexities of cultural responsiveness, racial advocacy, and the effects of systemic barriers with the intention to inspire the future generation of AAPI counselors and students.
What led you to specialize in social justice education and Asian American psychology?
My research focus on social justice education and Asian American psychology emerged separately and now they are aligned together. Initially, I decided to study Asian American psychology because I saw the mental health disparity in Asian American populations in the current mental health systems.
At the start of my research career, I was researching racial and ethnic identities and mental health of Asian American youth and young adults (i.e., immigrants, and transracial adoptees). After I started teaching and started training future mental health professionals, I became interested in how to teach social justice in an effective way, and to help students learn about culturally responsive practices. Now, I attempt to bring these two divergent areas together by researching social justice and Asian American experiences, such as unlearning internalized oppression and forging solidarity with other racial minority groups
Your research focuses on understanding how students understand the meanings of diversity and teaching diversity and social justice. What key challenges have you encountered in this work, and how have you addressed them?
As a psychologist, the challenges I notice relate to students’ emotional reactions when learning about diversity and social justice. These topics are very challenging to hold, understand, and feel. For instance, when learning about racism, it is very common to feel angry, sad, frustrated, overwhelmed, and helpless. These feelings permeate the classroom, and yet students are often socialized to learn objectively and not to pay attention to emotional responses. But emotional responses are very important in learning, and paying attention to these emotions can enhance the learning process. I focus on teaching to the whole person and providing scaffolding for better understanding students’ emotional experiences, by naming what might be happening and teaching skills to address them (e.g., mindfulness skills). I focus on helping to create a supportive and caring community where everyone in the class learns together when teaching these topics.
How can professionals in the counseling and psychology fields improve their cultural responsiveness when working with clients from different backgrounds?
Often, when we think about cultural responsiveness, the first thing people think about is better understanding other people’s (e.g., clients’) cultural contexts, upbringings, and history. I would argue that the most important thing for cultural responsiveness is not about understanding other people but about understanding oneself. Professionals can cause harm to their clients if they are not aware of their own histories, their racial and ethnic groups’ histories, assumptions, biases, and worldviews because they can impose these on their clients or make inaccurate assumptions about their clients. Hence, I would say that before learning about others, a practice of deep self-reflection is a critical learning step for clinicians.
What have been some of your key findings in your research about mental health in Asian Americans? How can we support the mental health of Asian Americans, particularly in the current social and political climate?
My research confirms that racial stress has a negative impact on the mental health of Asian Americans, while also highlighting their resilience. It is well-known that help-seeking rates within Asian American communities are low. However, it is crucial to recognize that this issue is not solely due to cultural reluctance but also stems from the lack of accessibility to mental health care within the current system. Therefore, it is important to increase access through the provision of culturally responsive care, enhanced outreach efforts, and the training of more Asian American clinicians, among other measures. Additionally, acknowledging the impact of anti-Asian racism on individuals’ physical and mental well-being is crucial in the present social and political climate.
This year’s AAPI Heritage Month theme is “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.” As a leader and educator, how do you encourage and empower the next generation of AAPI leaders?
I would like to remind the next generation of leaders to trust their experiences, wisdom from their communities, and inner voices. Many AAPI individuals are culturally socialized to be attentive to others and to care for them. However, this can sometimes lead to internalizing negative messages resulting from the intersections of racism, sexism, and other oppressions in our unjust society.
In order to avoid being defined by these messages, it is crucial to ground ourselves in the knowledge and lived experiences we bring, recognizing the importance and validity of our voices and experiences. Through this understanding, we can also begin to examine our own relative privileges and stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups. For me, this approach is a means of liberating ourselves from various forms of oppression in the world and empowering ourselves.