When people ask me why I became a therapist, I never quite know what to say. Not because the question makes me uncomfortable, but because it’s something that’s unique to Asian Americans.
I grew up the child of two immigrant parents, who came to the United States with nothing. My mother lived in a two-bedroom trailer with six other people. My father left behind all but his twin brother in Vietnam to pursue the American dream. When they had me, they worked endlessly with my mom toiling through nursing school and my father working double shifts, often with no days off. I learned to entertain myself. I remember playing on the swings with no one to push me, having a kite but having no one to teach me and daydreaming about the kids who played catch in their front yards.
In a way, I grew up too soon. I had to teach myself to be independent, taking on the same traits as my parents. Which meant putting my head down and working hard. That’s part of the reason why, though I’ve encountered racism from an early age, I never really understood it. I couldn’t grasp why kids looked at me differently. I just ignored them. When people made comments, I ignored it, even if inside, I wanted to yell and just wanted to belong. I always felt between cultures and like I had no one that truly understood what I was going through. I felt alone.
Looking back on it now, I understand and empathize with my parents. They were two proud immigrant parents who were thrust into a new world and culture. They showed their love not with words, but by embodying strength and saving for their children. I look at them now and see the lines on their faces and the pain in their joints when they walk. I love them deeply and yet mourn for them, knowing that they felt they had to internalize and suppress their emotions. We’ll sometimes sit through entire meals with no words exchanged, the silence hanging in the air, many questions hanging on the tips of our tongues, with none escaping. Just silent acknowledgment.
That is why I became a therapist...to heal the silent pain every one of us carries within our hearts.
The concepts of honor and stoicism within the Asian community are a natural deterrent to therapy. We are taught to be outwardly strong, masking our true thoughts at the cost of our mental health. The events of this past year have only magnified the mental health crisis and these conversations continue to go unaddressed within the Asian community. According to the National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS), Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white Americans.
This is why the Subtle Asian Mental Health (SAMH) Facebook group was created, to change the conversation and build a bridge between the obstacles that divide generations.
Started as a grassroots movement, the group is a home for those looking to vent, process and explore their mental health—often for the first time. Run by mental health professionals and advocates, nearly 60,000 group members now rely on SAMH for solidarity and to begin the process of healing. SAMH helps people, who may have never learned to be vulnerable, feel safe and develop the voice we have been yearning to express. Seeing the impact of the group inspired us to reach out to more communities through our nonprofit Asian Mental Health Collective, working towards making mental health easily available, approachable and accessible.
Through our group and nonprofit, we have partnered with WAVES to discuss all things mental wellness and even launched the Asian Mental Health Professionals network for current and aspiring AMHPs to share experiences, opportunities and resources. We also shifted our focus during the COVID-19 pandemic to reach communities beyond the U.S. We encouraged people to attend WAVES Virtual Roundtables, hosted our conference “TransformASIAN," launched therapist directories and more. As a result, SAMH sees more people joining the group every day, and we are working with philanthropic partners to help with our growth and expand our mission.
This is just the beginning and there is still a lot more work to normalize and de-stigmatize mental health within the Asian community. These conversations aren’t always easy to start, but here a few helpful tips:
Normalize vulnerable conversations about these topics. Saving face permeates our culture to protect our families while we silently bear our own personal struggles. To create change, it is important to model how vulnerability is a testament to true strength and encourage these mental health conversations, whether it is opening up to family and friends, or joining communities like our Facebook group.
Listen before you speak. Older generations may not verbally express their emotions because of language barriers or not knowing how, but they still feel them. Anxiety can appear as a tight knot in their stomach. Depression may simply be a lack of energy or motivation for a long period of time. Attempt to empathize with them and understand their struggles and traumas by recognizing this. It does not have to be an acceptance of dysfunction but instead can create an opportunity to begin a conversation.
Recognize your boundaries and limitations. Take time to learn what your boundaries are, what you value and how you wish for conversations about your mental health to look like. Navigating conversations about mental health can feel challenging and new, but by doing so you are redefining decades of learned behaviors.
Give yourself the freedom to rest. Mental health and wellness is a journey, not a destination. Knowing your limits and when you need rest is deeply important. Not every relationship is worth saving, and not every battle has to be fought today.
Find the right therapist to guide your journey. Each therapist has a different style, approach and voice when it comes to therapy. Take the time to ask questions and interview them; be sure to find a therapist that takes the time to understand you and communicates in a way that you respond to. Check out our therapist directories in the U.S. and Canada to find a therapist near you.
Together, we are changing and building a healthier future that honors our identity and celebrates our culture.
About the Author: Christopher Vo (He/Him) is an American-born Vietnamese therapist based out of Houston, who is passionate about working with individuals and couples to normalize mental health. One of the first admins of Subtle Asian Mental Health (SAMH), Christopher has helped the group grow to have over 58,000 members and is now Chief of Operations at Asian Mental Health Collective — a nonprofit that was created to expand the mission of SAMH to destigmatize mental health within the Asian community and beyond. You can find him at atiredtherapist.com.
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