It’s Time to Talk About AAPI Mental Health

May 10, 2022 | Features, Recent Stories

The rate of mental illness among young Asian American adults is on the rise. And yet, they are the least-likely ethnic group to seek mental health services—three times less likely than white people and half as likely as the national rate

Photo: Courtesy of CASL A Chinese American Service League employee meets with a client.

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Abbey Eusebio

To put it plainly, the last couple years have not been good for the Asian American Pacific Islanders community members’ mental health.

As social service providers serving Asian Americans, we’ve been dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is traumatic in and of itself. Throw in a sharp increase in hate crimes and incidents against Asian people, a deep-seated stigma against seeking mental health treatment, and an underfunded support system due to harmful stereotypes that have been around for generations, and you have a recipe for a true crisis.

As a Chicago-based organization, the issue hits especially close to home for us at the Chinese American Service League (CASL), the Midwest’s largest AAPI social service organization. We have seen this crisis develop firsthand in the people we serve, who are all but debilitated by the mounting problems.

In 2021, about 45% of respondents to a survey of our clients said they didn’t feel safe in their own neighborhood, a sharp increase from the less than 30% who gave that answer in 2020. Additionally, one of our partners, The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), found last year that 82% of Chicago’s AAPI population reported psychological distress and unmet behavioral health needs.

These results are not surprising. They are reflective of an increasingly crushing atmosphere for the AAPI community. Anti-Asian hate crimes exploded in 2021, increasing by 339% nationally over the previous year. Even with more anti-AAPI hate crimes than ever being recorded, we know there are untold numbers that go unreported, and many more incidents of hate aren’t included in official statistics because they do not meet the legal criteria for a hate crime. For instance, TAAF found there were 92 incidents of anti-AAPI hate reported in Illinois in 2020—almost three times the amount of hate crimes against all races combined in Illinois that year as reported by the FBI.

The current mental stressors are only exacerbating long-brewing underlying issues. A federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found in 2018 that the rate of mental illness among young Asian American adults is on the rise. From 2018 through March 19, 2022, suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian American young adults ages 15-24, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Further, many in our community who need the most help don’t seek it out: Studies have shown Asian Americans are the least-likely ethnic group to seek mental health services—three times less likely than white people and half as likely as the national rate, according to the American Psychological Association.

Societal pressures such as the “model minority” myth, a distrust of government, cultural and family stigma, and language barriers create further difficulties in reporting hate incidents and getting mental health treatment. Others may not seek help because they are too traumatized to come forward—an act of courage in itself—or because they are simply unaware of where they can go for assistance.

It’s frankly unacceptable how overdue it is for these problems to be adequately addressed. Our community is desperate for solutions, so CASL is taking the initiative to break down these barriers to access, improve mental health, and fight anti-AAPI hate in the long-term.

Last October, we launched our Behavioral Health and Clinical Services Department. We are not yet fully staffed, but we already have 41 individual clients and 14 households who receive care through a client advocacy unit (CAU) model. That means our clients fill out assessment forms during intake and are connected to an entire CAU based not just on the services they initially sought, but also others from which they can benefit. As part of the program, we offer mental health services, with clients most commonly seeking help for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses stemming from traumatic events such as abuse and hate.

A month after we started offering mental health services, we launched our Anti-Hate Action Center in partnership with TAAF. As manager of the center, I am overseeing the creation of the infrastructure we need to track hate crimes, respond to them, and protect victims.

We are working on launching an online web form and hotline for victims to report hate crimes. In the meantime, we have already started taking referrals from other CASL programs and core partners, and ensuring CASL’s nearly 600 employees know where they can send people who need the Anti-Hate Action Center’s services.

For example, one of our Anti-Hate Action Center clients, a robbery victim who suspected he was targeted for being an elderly AAPI man, came to us after another CASL department referred him. Our staff is helping him file a police report and replace his ID—achieving our mission of caring for hate crime victims and bolstering our community’s hate crime reporting.

While we are happy to lead the way, it’s just as important that this evolves into a program not just for CASL, but also for partners throughout our community. It’s why we took in a client who was referred to us by the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago. As more community stakeholders become aware of the Anti-Hate Action Center, we hope to welcome even more external referrals.

It’s our hope to build a robust database that demonstrates just how much need exists for workable solutions. We know these problems are not fixable overnight, but it’s high time to actually start solving them—and we hope others will join us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abbey Eusebio is the Chinese American Service League’s Anti-Hate Action Center manager. She focuses on implementing the goals and objectives of the Center, which include protection, response, prevention, and tracking. Ms. Eusebio ensures that survivors of hate crimes have access to comprehensive services and works to lead CASL’s efforts in being a partner in fighting such injustices.

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