The Collective Trauma of Anti-Asian Hate: We Talk to 5 Mental Health Experts
The day after the mass shooting in Atlanta left six Asian women among the dead, Eunji Kim watched the press conference where a law enforcement official described the gunman as having had a "bad day" when he fired on three Asian-run spas.
The comment reinforced the feeling the 27-year-old art school student said she has had most of her life -- that in the U.S., "they don't see Asian women as human."
When Kim was a teenager, a 60-ish man asked her out at a Starbucks, remarking how her "exotic" look reminded him of a student of his in Shanghai. There were the guys on campus who laughed at her as she walked by, pretending to speak, she assumed, in an Asian language. There was the customer who kissed and groped her during her shift as a server at a sushi restaurant.
Kim rarely spoke of any of it, not wanting to draw attention from the injustice staring down other communities of color and what she saw as the source of systemic racism: white supremacy.
But Kim's memories from the time she emigrated from South Korea at age 7 with her family gnawed at her-- like the way people talked down to her parents, a house painter and restaurant worker -- as did the rise in violence against Asian Americans during a pandemic they were often scapegoated for.
Then Atlanta happened.
"I felt so weak," said Kim, who lives in La Palma. "I couldn't do homework. I couldn't even exercise."
A BREW OF EMOTIONS
That Kim experienced a physical response to the Atlanta mass shooting comes as no surprise to therapists who say stress manifests itself in the form of disorders such as anxiety, migraines, digestive issues and insomnia.
"We're collectively going through this trauma together," said Helen Kim, a therapist based in Sierra Madre. "There's this sense of outrage and anger and numbness and just deep sadness all balled into one."
We spoke with Kim and four other mental health experts about how they're processing the attacks on Asians and what advice they're giving clients.
The therapists report that the impact of the recent events varies greatly from person to person, but for some the attacks are dredging up memories of feeling disempowered -- from being bullied as a child to situations as adults where responding would have been unsafe.
At vigils and rallies, speakers share painful brushes with racism. Helen Kim said she was called "dirty Chinese" in Spanish while growing up in Koreatown.
"Our bodies are all remembering those moments," Kim said. "And it's those moments that we didn't give justice before, right? We just felt like this is just who we are. And this is how society is. We just accepted it."
But hearing about the current surge in anti-Asian incidents has put racism at the forefront for many, said Jessica ChenFeng, who provides therapy at Loma Linda University Health.
"It's not every single day necessarily, but it's enough where it's like, 'Oh, this happened to my relatives or someone at work.' Or, 'I read about this on the news,' and so then it becomes this collective fear and it translates into my day-to-day living," ChenFeng said.
This has some thinking harder about racial identity and reassessing their place in this country.
"There is a curiosity as an Asian American person where you've always wondered, 'Do I belong?'" said ChenFeng. 'You think, 'Oh, that neighbor or co-worker was so kind and welcoming. It's not so bad.' Then something really bad happens and it reinforces this fear you have."
Ask many Asian Americans about race and they're apt to identify by ethnicity. More than 20 million people of Asian descent live in the U.S., with family roots extending from more than 20 countries.
But racists don't make the distinction, as shown in a grim parade of security camera footage and cell phone video that's been released of attackers raining slurs and fists on Asian Americans.
Perhaps not since the 1982 murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit by two autoworkers -- who apparently mistook him for Japanese -- have Asian Americans been so joined in grief and moved to action.
At the same time Asian Americans are grappling with issues of race and racism, the threat of physical danger to them and their loved ones competes for attention.
Attacks have taken place out of the blue and in broad daylight, in busy stores and well-trod sidewalks, targeting everyone from a New York mom taking her daughter to a protest to an older man taking a walk in San Francisco.
And anti-Asian hate does not seem to be abating. AAPI Data released a survey this week in which one in 10 Asian Americans reported a hate incident in just the first few months of 2021.
NEW SURVEY conducted immediately after the mass shooting in Atlanta finds:— Jennifer Lee 🦁 (@JLeeSoc) March 30, 2021
1 in 8 #AsianAmerican adults experienced a hate incident in 2020
1 in 10 #AsianAmerican adults have in the first quarter of 2021
Let that sink in.#StopAsianHate #StopAAPIHatehttps://t.co/dJVtWqq8gl
To protect themselves, people are buying pepper spray, Tasers, even guns. Self-defense courses are marketed to Asian American women, with one program donating proceeds to the Atlanta shooting victims.
Suffice to say, it's a lot.
SOME PROFESSIONAL ADVICE
The experts told us there were steps -- some harder than others -- that Asian Americans can take to navigate this heartbreaking time in a way that protects their mental health.
The Basics: Get enough sleep and food. Avoid excessive alcohol and drugs. Remind yourself that the mind and body feed each other, so read your physiological responses.
"If there's like a rock in the pit of our stomach, that can be fear," said Pasadena-based therapist Lance Tango. "Or we might feel an emptiness in our chest, and that can be a sense of loneliness and disconnect."
So, don't push yourself to take that call or Zoom meeting if you're feeling on the verge of burnout.
Find An Outlet For Your Emotions: For some, it will be attending vigils and protests, or donating to or volunteering with organizations that serve the community.
Others may want time to reflect alone, perhaps through writing, art or exercise.
People can also find a mental health professional or trusted friends to share their feelings.
ChenFeng said some people may want to channel their anger and adrenaline into self-defense courses, which she is taking. But she urged them to not neglect their mental health as well.
"While we're taking the self-defense classes, while we're purchasing pepper spray, what is the toll that that energy is taking on us?" ChenFeng said.
Therapists say for others, the most comforting thing is to change nothing in their daily lives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Monitor Your Media Consumption: It's important to understand the scope of what's happening in the news, but absorbing a steady stream of traumatic stories is taxing.
Consider turning off news alerts on your phone. Avoid scrolling through Twitter before bed. Turn off auto-replay on videos, as many did after this week's release of shocking footage from New York City of a 65-year-old woman kicked repeatedly in the head while bystanders did nothing.
"The problem with the news cycle and social media is that it's endless, and it's incredibly triggering," said UCLA clinical psychology professor Tim Fong. "If you don't handle it properly, there's only so much a human brain can healthily engage."
Get A Jump On Racists: Tango has a potentially discomforting exercise: Prepare in advance for a racist encounter. Think ahead to how you would respond to a racist verbal attack. Tango said many people are left feeling badly after an attack because they were too shocked and caught off guard to fight back the way they wanted to. (Of course, all bets are off should you be in physical danger. Safety first.)
Tango had another piece of advice. Should you experience a hate incident, hold bystanders accountable. Say to them: "Did you see what just happened to me? Did you just see that? That was awful."
Many of the videos of attacks on Asian Americans show bystanders failing to intervene.
"It's a very strange aftereffect to have something happen and then to see the world move on like nothing happened," Tango said.
Addressing bystanders afterwards, Tango said, "leaves us not having to question, 'Did something happen to me?' What we've just now done is we put some of that burden on the bystanders, and now they have to process it, too."
Checking In On Mental Well-Being Of Older Relatives: In Asian American communities, there's stigma about talking about mental health or getting therapy, especially among older people.
L.A. therapist Melissa Matugas has developed a strategy to talk with her older Filipino American relatives who are reluctant to address emotions. She recommends using open-ended questions versus those that will elicit a "yes" or "no."
Matguas said: "That may look like saying something like, 'Mom, did you see that in New York, Asian hate crimes have increased by 1900%? Did you read that? What do you think about that?'"
"I like to focus around ways to bring up discussions without pushing too much of the 'How are you feeling?' on people,'' Matugas said. "Because that can be a very raw question to somebody that's not used to talking about those things."
Again, this is a not a one-size-fits-all issue. In some cases, older Asians are not at all traumatized, Matugas said. Rather, their younger relatives are more worried for them.
UCLA's Fong said he's recently opened conversations about race with his parents and it's been eye-opening to hear about their experiences as immigrants through his lens.
His mom talked about being given extra assignments as an office worker.
"And she took that as a compliment," Fong said. "And I'm like, 'No, that's because they took advantage of you.'"
FINDING HER VOICE
National attention on the anti-Asian attacks has helped to spotlight legislation in Congress to improve the reporting of hate crimes. This week, the White House announced initiatives to tackle anti-Asian violence, such as setting aside funds for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
But Fong said it's also important for Asian Americans to process the anti-Asian climate on an individual level.
"If this national discussion is ripping open a lot of trauma, awakening feelings that were suppressed or buried for the last 30, 40 years, we better do something with those emotions, otherwise any progress is going to be stalled," he said.
For days after the Atlanta attacks, Eunji Kim's body felt drained, but after driving to her mom's and finally allowing herself to sob, her mood began to lift.
Kim attended a vigil in Alhambra to honor the victims of Atlanta, where she surprised herself by getting up to speak about the violence and misogyny that Asian American women face within and outside of their communities.
Kim said she previously felt she didn't have the right to complain about racism because she had bought into the model minority myth that Asian Americans are doing better than other groups. The truth is that the income gap is widest among Asian Americans, and many struggle daily with poverty, wage theft and the threat of deportation.
Kim said she doesn't plan on staying silent any longer.
"Now that I went through this slump and mourning period, I feel stronger now," she said. "No more secrets."