Mental Health Is Complicated For APIA Folks. Let's Talk About It.

This APIA Heritage Month, we're talking about mental health. Because, for too long, it's been stigmatized among our community. That's why PS is spotlighting mental health journeys from APIA perspectives — to confront the shame around going to therapy, seeking help, and talking about our feelings. Read the stories here.

I have a confession: I've never been to therapy. (TikTok would probably say that's a red flag.) But I'm not against going to therapy, nor do I think I wouldn't benefit from it. In fact, I know there's so much for me to explore when it comes to my mental health.

But like many APIA folks, my approach to mental health is complicated.

But like many APIA folks, my approach to mental health is complicated. I grew up in a Korean household in which feelings were never discussed, negative emotions were pushed aside and meant to be forgotten, and a plate of meticulously cut fruit was the strongest expression of love.

As I've come into my own throughout my 20s, I've slowly started to let go of that discomfort and rigidity around emotions. But there's still unlearning for me to do — I'm not always comfortable talking about my inner thoughts, and I find it especially difficult to feel empowered to articulate what I'm actually feeling.

While conversations about mental health have become increasingly prevalent in today's society, research shows that Asian Americans are 50 percent less likely than other racial groups to seek mental health services. That statistic is especially concerning considering the rise in anti-Asian hate has reinforced trauma and fear within the community. While finances, language barriers, and access are all factors, experts say the stigma, often from within the APIA community itself, is what prevents many from seeking mental health care.

"Our culture really operates under this lens of shame and honor," says Angela Wu, LMFT, LPCC, who's known as @thesassyasiantherapist on Instagram. "Our identities are really a reflection of our family, and in order to preserve this reputation, we do this thing called saving face. Saving face frowns upon sharing your vulnerabilities and weaknesses and airing out your 'dirty laundry,' so therapy, the act of sharing vulnerabilities, is shameful for the families."

I know there's no shame in asking for help. As someone who tells stories in the wellness and lifestyle space for a living, I recognize the power of education around mental health. I've seen the positive impact that mental health diagnoses and therapy have had on friends and loved ones. I also understand that anyone can benefit from therapy, and nothing has to be "wrong" to seek it out. Yet, it's been difficult for me to destigmatize mental health within the context of my own life. I think about how my parents (and worse, grandparents) might be worried about me if they learned I tried therapy; how I haven't been through a debilitating breakup or grief that's worthy of professional help; and how I feel guilty for taking time away from someone who might actually need it.

That's how many APIA folks approach mental health. "That stigma is internalized based off of generational status and what we've been taught, but also stereotypes in dominant society that are used against us to make us feel like if we reach out for help, we're weak, we're crazy, we're not worthy, or we're not successful," says Sahaj Kaur Kohli, MA, LGPC, NCC, author of "But What Will People Say?" and founder of Brown Girl Therapy, an online mental health community for all children of immigrants.

The model-minority myth, for instance, is one stereotype that makes it difficult for many in the community to ask for help. It tells us, "We should be agreeable, we should not rock the boat. We should have all of these things," Kohli says. "And that makes it hard for us to say, 'Actually, I have too much on my plate. I need support. I need help.'"

And there's that feeling of unending guilt associated with our parents, which both Wu and Kohli identify as one of the biggest stressors they see in their APIA clients. "We are expected to take care of our family and not really put ourselves first, especially as immigrants," Wu says. "We've been conditioned and told at young ages to be grateful for what our parents have given us. So if we have any type of grievance, it can feel really selfish and produce a lot of guilt."

Kohli adds: "There's another layer for children of immigrants and third-gen immigrants. There's this narrative that we have access to so many more opportunities and resources than our parents, elders, or even family who live in other countries have, and therefore, we feel a sense of mental health impostor syndrome, where we feel like our struggles don't matter or other people have it worse, so we shouldn't complain."

What's more, while some APIA folks may recognize the value of therapy, historically, it wasn't always made to feel like it was "for us," Kohli says. "So many people have told me, 'Therapy is for white people' or 'Mental health care is for white people.' Western wellness and therapy is focused on individualism. It doesn't look like us. It doesn't speak our languages, figuratively or literally."

So when we do approach mental health care, it can be doubly important to find a professional from a similar background or race, which poses another barrier for many. Over the years, I've attempted to search for a therapist, only to become overwhelmed at the challenge of finding someone who's Asian American, a woman, and whose sessions are covered by my insurance.

Starting your mental health journey is overwhelming, and I've only begun to confront this internalized stigma and these obstacles for myself. So let's talk about it. As Kohli says, that's the only way to confront stigma.

Wu agrees. "Sharing your stories, it does take risk, because this is something that you never talked about growing up. It can feel uncomfortable, but I would encourage you to lean into that discomfort and be vulnerable if you feel psychologically, emotionally safe to do so."

That's why, this APIA Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, PS is spotlighting stories from APIA folks sharing their own mental health journeys. Snowboarding Olympian Chloe Kim gets vulnerable about her mental health struggles and discusses how she hopes to inspire future athletes and young APIA women by doing so. PS contributor Brina Patel writes about how therapy reconnected her to her South Asian roots. As an Asian dad, PS contributor Michael Kwan shares how he's teaching his kids to feel "big" feelings. PS contributor Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton uncovers how she overcame her cultural impostor syndrome by reclaiming her Hawaiian ancestry. PS contributor Crystal Bui explores how hypnotherapy helped confront her childhood trauma and reconcile growing up as an outsider in America. And we'll continue to share perspectives throughout the month.

These are just some of the stories that have inspired me to embark on my own journey. As Kohli says, "A part of taking care of our mental health is to model that behavior — to gain language to model it for other people and reflect back those feelings."

So, join us in continuing the conversation around mental health in the APIA community. Start reading here.

Yerin Kim is the features editor at POPSUGAR, where she helps shape the vision for special features and packages across the network. A graduate of Syracuse University's Newhouse School, she has over five years of experience in the pop culture and women's lifestyle spaces. She's passionate about spreading cultural sensitivity through the lenses of lifestyle, entertainment, and style.