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How To Talk To Asian Elders About Getting Mental Health Help

Large photos rest on easels rimming in white flowers with candles at the base. One women is bent over reading the messages.
A row of posters have photos of the victims of the Monterey Park shooting.
(Chris Farias
/
LAist)
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Many Asian Americans are questioning the state of mental health in their community after the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.

Therapy can help with anger management, conflict resolution and negotiation skills, according to Jenny Wang, Ph.D, who is a therapist and author of Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans.

“Does therapy prevent all violence? Probably not,” she said. "But therapy provides skills and support that may reduce it."

Wang said violence happens when people cannot regulate their internal emotions. She said many AAPI immigrants become emotionally detached and repress certain feelings to adapt to the challenges that their new life brings.

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“This value of emotional stoicism — this idea that when we have emotional upheaval or upset, we try as much as we can to withhold emotional dysregulation — they see it as a strength,” Wang said.

Roots In A Traumatic Past

Before navigating domestic life in the United States, AAPI immigrants often navigated difficult lives in their motherlands. According to Wang, swallowing in the bitterness - a Chinese expression used to show suppressing feelings rather than acknowledging them - becomes a value.

Many Chinese fled famine and political repression. Vietnamese and Koreans suffered years of war. Filipinos escaped dictatorship. Cambodians ran away from genocide. Many Japanese carried a stiff upper lip when they or their ancestors were put into concentration camps. In all these cases, Asian immigrants have been beset by colonialism, poverty, war or intergenerational trauma, said Wang.

Asian elders display stoicism when faced with inner turmoil, but if it’s left unmanaged it sometimes [has] really harmful consequences.
— Jenny Wang, Ph.D

But the appearance of stoicism belies the reality.

“It’s actually a protective mechanism,” said Esther Lee, a therapist in the San Fernando Valley. “It’s kept them safe this long.”

The defense mechanism is an indicator of the lack of coping and communication skills, Lee said. It leads to pent-up resentment, anger, and frustration that boils right below the surface.

“Asian elders display stoicism when faced with inner turmoil, but if it’s left unmanaged,” Wang says, “it sometimes [has] really harmful consequences.”

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Why Understanding Asian Cultures Matters

The defense mechanism is also rooted in Asian cultures' collectivist attitudes, said Lee. Since an individual’s worth and identity derive from the community and their families, the elders tend to deprioritize their own mental well-being in favor of the well-being of others.

However, as they age, they sometimes cannot give to the community as they once did. Without being able to give to the community, AAPI elders might feel their worth is limited. So as not to be a burden, they isolate themselves.

They are a very vulnerable population, they're often really isolated and alone.
— Sharon Kwon, a therapist in Los Angeles

“They are a very vulnerable population, they're often really isolated and alone. Not all of them have family nearby that are checking on them,” said Sharon Kwon, a therapist in Los Angeles who has worked with the elderly community in Koreatown.

Kwon said the problem worsens due to shame, plus the idea among many in the community that therapy is only for “crazy people.” And machismo might be another factor.

“I also think that Asian American cultures are inherently very patriarchal and collective, which often creates the perfect recipe for domestic violence in the home,” said Kwon.

Younger Generations Have An Important Role

Wang said younger generations might end the cycle of closed emotions, loneliness and despair.

“I’m a firm believer that when the younger generation — people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — actually pursue mental health and well-being, that is the catalyst to perhaps the older generation [seeking help],” says Wang.

For her, therapy is more than just speaking about feelings: it’s about arming our loved ones with the tools to navigate their homes, workplaces and all the spaces in between. Sharing your own experiences with therapy is key.

How To Get Started

To introduce elders to therapy, Wang suggests telling them about how you went to a therapist for a problem, like with work or school. Then list the ways a therapist has helped.

“One of the things that Asian elders worry about is that you kind of sit there and vent about your problems, but nothing changes,” said Wang.

So it's important to demonstrate that it's not just about venting, but about "developing a plan to change things in our lives for the better, or to learn a skill, like communication, or like learning how to negotiate,” she said.

Kwon added that therapists can help elders process difficult emotions, like loneliness, guilt, and feeling like a burden. “We can also even link them to case management services that actually help you with more day to day stuff,” she said.

Kwon belongs to the “Yellow Chair Collective” — a group of Asian American therapists. According to its website, Asian American therapists can help elders by knowing the ins-and-outs of a culture and being open minded and curious about their viewpoints.

Asian American therapists take the onus to be sensitive to cultural barriers, said April Tith, a therapist from Long Beach. “Cultural humility is incorporated into their practice. “Searching for clinicians that prioritize cultural sensitivity and inclusion can make [finding a therapist] more successful,” Tith said.

Professional therapy isn’t always accessible, nor always right for every person, Kwon said. In those cases, she suggested churches and temples as great alternatives because they provide community and support. “Churches and pastors were the original therapists,” she said.

“What I love about therapy is that it helps create a sense of personal liberation,” said Lee. “Collective liberation can only happen if personal liberation and peace is being met.”

Resources For The AAPI Community

If you need help

Additional resources

All elders are eligible for Medicare, and can access the L.A. County Department of Mental Health website. There, they can find mental health providers in their local community.

The Yellow Chair collective is another resource with Asian therapists who are culturally sensitive, and it offers a nonprofit service called ENTWINE that offers low-cost mental health services and case management.

Resources For Anyone In Crisis

Ask For Help

How To Help Monterey Park Victim Families

  • GoFundMe has set up a dedicated fundraising page to support survivors and loved ones of the mass shooting. The list includes:

  • GoFundMe says these funds are verified, meaning their team is ensuring donations will be used as claimed. You can see the full list here.

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