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How Recent Attacks on the AAPI Community Have Impacted Our Anxiety

The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has a long and difficult history with mental health. Societal perceptions and stereotypes often paint AAPI people as cold, unfeeling and seemingly immune to emotions as a product of a superior intellect. These are some of the foundations of the “model minority myth,” and though these are issues that are engrained in the society as a whole, they have negative impacts on people in their everyday interactions, relationships and health. They fuel things like violence and hate crimes against AAPI people, which have skyrocketed during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and have recently garnered increased media attention. However, these issues are not just matters of justice and equality, but also are factors in a major public health concern that has existed for generations.

Conversations and resources surrounding mental health across all minority communities, not just racial communities, have often been overshadowed and ignored for a variety of reasons. As a result, people in those communities can sometimes internalize this and create an environment hostile to openly talking about mental illness. Unfortunately, the AAPI community is no exception to this.

While I obviously cannot speak for all people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, I have heard more than enough stories from people, as well as reflected on my own experiences, to see that there is a problem larger than many people seem to realize. The violence and hate crimes against AAPI people were not created due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but rather the largest public health crisis in generations simply opened a doorway for ignorance and hate to point blame at our community. For those unaware of why this increase has happened, most hate crimes have been linked to some kind of racist ideas of blaming people who appear Chinese (and by extension, Asian) because the pandemic began in China. There is myriad issues with this, but I want to focus on the concrete impacts of these news headlines.

A mass shooting in Atlanta claimed the lives of six Asian women. A Chinese grandmother attacked in broad daylight in San Francisco. A disturbing video of an attack against a 65-year-old Asian American woman shocked the nation, mostly by the fact that so many people were bystanders and simply watched the violent attack occur. These things have surprised many people to learn are happening daily. Last year, reports of hate crimes against AAPI people increased by 149%. However, these things were saddening, but not shocking, to many AAPI people. And the effects of these headlines aggravate the nerve of the issue I want to highlight now.

In many Asian families, not just in America but around the world, there is a significant culture that encourages over-working, success at all costs, and dismissal of mental illness as purely weakness. Public health data has shown that Asian Americans and Asians living in America are one of the least likely demographics to seek out and receive any form of therapeutic or psychiatric treatment — a rate of 8.6% compared to nearly 16% of the general population. Why is this? Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, the culture that exists within the AAPI community isn’t always conducive to vulnerability and seeking help. Especially for younger people like myself, living in stranger and more challenging times than ever, we cannot afford to do what generations before us did. The focus on academic and career success is potent in many Asian families, but it is taken to the extreme. It has developed into what many of my friends and family members in our community experience and can empathize with well: pressure. Pressure to succeed, to make any sacrifice possible to make your parents and grandparents proud, and pressure to achieve what others have set in mind for you, not yourself. It isn’t difficult to see how this isn’t healthy.

Second, there have been effectively no conversations outside the AAPI community, in wider society, about mental health and AAPI people. The toxicity inside cannot be addressed unless it is recognized outside as well. For too long, people in the community have struggled with their mental health, but have simply had no avenues to help improve it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends tell me things like:

“I’m really depressed, and it’s getting in the way of my schoolwork, so I’m just going to try to forget about it.”

“I want to go to therapy to help my anxiety, but my parents would never let me.”

“I think I need help, but I would never be able to ask my family.”

All of these things reflect that AAPI people are just as susceptible to mental health issues as anyone else, but that the real challenge lies in the culture. And this is where the recent reports come in.

As I said, hate crimes and violence against AAPI people did not start a few weeks ago, it has simply started to be covered more in the news (though at the time of this writing, it appears to be fading from the news cycle). In addition to the internal culture of pressure and the external absence of substantive conversations and change, this violence has only fanned the flames of the mental strain on AAPI people.

For me, personally, I’ve always struggled, to one extent or another, with anxiety. I have a diagnosis of an unspecified anxiety disorder, but with the recent headlines, I have been struggling with it worse than usual. However, one symptom of my anxiety that is also a standalone mental health issue in some cases is paranoia. When I was in high school, before I received any sort of mental health treatment (partly due to my fear of reaching out), I struggled with increasing paranoia. My mind had convinced me that any time a car drove behind me for longer than a couple of minutes, that it was someone following me. I was nervous to even be in my house because I had convinced myself that my parents had put cameras everywhere. Paranoia and anxiety often go hand-in-hand, and both are things that many of my friends and family members in the AAPI community have been feeling while outside.

It is a type of anxiety difficult to put into words. Anytime I go to the store or walk to the library, I get nervous whenever I see someone walk by me. Any time someone is walking behind me, I always look over my shoulder just to see what they’re doing. I’m constantly scared of being attacked, called out or harassed because I look Asian. In fact, just the other day, someone stopped me on the sidewalk just to make a racist comment to me. When I turned to walk away, and I put my headphones on, I heard him start to shout at me, so I started to run away quickly. This anxiety, fear and paranoia I have felt, and that others have shared with me, is a perfect example of how current events exacerbate preexisting mental health challenges.

The culture around mental health within and outside the AAPI community needs to change, and this starts with recognizing the detrimental effects of the recent attacks and violence. These stories are slowly starting to fade from the public sphere, unfortunately, but this doesn’t mean the mental health challenges are fading as well. Anxiety and paranoia persist for many minority groups, not just the AAPI community. To be dedicated to improving mental health means to start and continue conversations around mental health in communities that have historically suffered in silence. I hope our modern tragedies will serve to be the catalyst for change to improve the mental health of all people, including AAPI people.

Photo by Liam Martens on Unsplash