This Therapist Is Changing How Asian Americans Seek Therapy

We've all heard horror stories about therapy gone wrong. Maybe your therapist can't understand where you're coming from or you just didn't connect with a mental health professional. But licensed marriage and family therapist Yin J. Li, MA, LMFT, is flipping the script on what it means to find a culturally informed therapist with her project Asians Do Therapy, which is a website destination and also a podcast. Her goal is to highlight APIA people's positive experience with therapy, share what good, culturally informed therapy looks like, and help erase the stigma associated with seeking mental health help.

On the Asians Do Therapy website, Li notes that therapy is "primarily centered on the white, Western, middle class experience," which she explains is problematic. And while Li states on the website that she started Asians Do Therapy because people in the Asian community are struggling and often in isolation, she acknowledges that it's not just the APIA community that faces stigma associated with therapy.

"Stigma happens in all communities, not just Asian communities, Li told POPSUGAR. "Latinx [communities], Black communities, religious communities; there's stigma in every community. It's just not unique to Asian communities." Still, it was her own personal experience seeking therapy that eventually landed her in the therapist's chair.

More than 15 years ago, Li started her career in investment banking and technology. "As an immigrant, I felt for my first career, that it was out of necessity. I couldn't imagine something other than something very concrete that I could make a living out of," she explained. "So, finance and technology felt very concrete, very stable, very what was expected of me."

As time went on, she felt that her career lacked meaning and fulfillment. "It was my own process of therapy that helped me think about what I wanted and what was more important to me," she said. "Through my own process of reconnecting with myself led me to think about, 'OK, I could imagine other things for myself. What would I want to be doing.'"

She said being a therapist has helped her feel connected to her clients and connected to the humanity of other people, which she finds fulfilling.

How Asians Do Therapy Came to Be

According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), APIA adults are the racial group least likely to use mental health services, and are three times less likely to seek mental health care than white people. Also, for various reasons including lack of health insurance and language barriers, Asian Americans also have the lowest rates of access to mental health care.

As Li looked at the numbers and contemplated the structural issues around why Asian Americans don't have access to mental health care, she also thought about accessibility. She notes that a major barrier to access is cost, but accessibility is also about information.

"That was a piece that I could have impact on, to give people information about what therapy actually is and what it's not," she said. "And to see people like ourselves, Asian people doing therapy, so that it becomes more accessible and more relatable. . . that's how it started."

Now, Asians Do Therapy has grown into a community of people sharing their stories of going to therapy and how it's had a positive impact. Li also highlights famous APIA folks who have been open about their experience going to therapy, such as Sandra Oh, David Chang, and Lilly Singh.

Li's Advice For People Seeking Therapy

"Therapy is exploring these ways about how do we deal with life in a way that works for us?"

There is often a misconception that therapy is only for people who have experienced trauma or have a severe mental illness. In reality, Li said everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist.

"There's no instruction manual on life. No one teaches us how to deal with disappointment, or heartbreak, or suffering, or difficulty," she said. "I think therapy is exploring these ways about how do we deal with life in a way that works for us? In a way that is not harmful to us? In a way that is helpful, even? Sometimes therapy is also a way of getting to know yourself better. As a therapist, I facilitate a series of questions and inquiry into who are you? Who do you want to be?"

People may think they can rely on their friends or family as a sounding board for their problems, or seek other methods of dealing with their issues such as art or journaling. And while these might all be beneficial to your mental health, it's not a replacement for therapy.

Li pointed out that your friends and family aren't impartial, so they could be your cheerleader or they might criticize you. She also said that therapists help you process what has happened in your life, and while every therapist is different, some might ask certain questions in a way that is different from what your friends or family might say.

Tips on Finding a Culturally Informed Therapist

Li offers information on the website for people who are new to therapy and ready to begin seeing a professional. But finding a culturally informed therapist is important to seeking the best treatment for your mental health, and Li said it's important to be direct when searching for a professional.

Some of the questions she said people should ask are:

  • Have you worked with somebody who is Asian?
  • How many of your clients are Asian?
  • What do you think about race and how it affects somebody's mental health?
  • How would we be working together in a session?
  • What will we be talking about in a session?
  • What's your style of working?
  • How will we talk about differences in the therapy room? Race and culture is just one difference. There might be other differences that happen in the therapy room, but how do we talk about it?

Their answers are important, and Li notes that if someone feels uncomfortable when asked these questions, it's likely they haven't thought much about race.

"Somebody tells you, 'I don't think about race,' that's a problem, but it's how they answer the question," she said. "How open are they to your questions? Because normally there will be something hard that comes up in therapy and you'll want a therapist who is able to work through that difficulty, that challenge, whatever that might be."

"Sometimes [therapy is] actually quite magical and quite enlightening."

As Asians Do Therapy continues to spread awareness about seeking therapy and helping provide information for people who want to take that next step to treat their mental health, Li wants people to know that therapy isn't always a dark and emotional. In fact, it can be quite positive and sometimes fun.

"People think of therapy as this heavy thing, and sometimes it is heavy. But sometimes it's actually quite magical and quite enlightening."