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Program Offering Free Therapy To Asian American Youth Expands: ‘We Feel Like We’re Saving Lives’

An Asian American woman and man stand side by side in front of a wall with signage that reads: "Little Tokyo Service Center: Positive Change for People and Places." The wall also has several framed photos including a black and white vintage image of a street scene.
Marian Sunabe and Matthew Yonemura help run Changing Tides' mental health program.
(Robert Garrova
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Meeting A Demand For Therapy Among Young Asian Americans

On a recent afternoon in Little Tokyo on the edge of downtown L.A., the streets are busy with trucks making deliveries and people heading home with groceries. Across the street from a vape shop sits a nondescript building that houses the Little Tokyo Service Center.

In a conference room still outfitted with plexiglass dividers — a remnant from the worst of the pandemic — retired mental health worker Marian Sunabe describes the tradition of giving “Koden,” a condolence gift, after someone passes.

“In Japanese American culture, the whole community wanted to help the family pay for the funeral expenses," Sunabe says. "So whenever there was a Japanese American family that you knew of that lost someone, everyone would send them a little money."

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When a local family recently lost a young loved one to suicide, Sunabe says the family decided to ask for something a little different in the tradition of giving Koden.

“They said instead of giving us money, would you please give money to this organization, Changing Tides, that is trying to make headway amongst the Asian American youth and their mental health concerns that sometimes result in suicide.”

Changing Tides is a program of the Little Tokyo Service Center and has the mission of inspiring mental health discussion within the Asian American community. Matthew Yonemura is an outreach coordinator for the program.

“It’s horrible to lose anyone at any age, but when it’s a young person like that, I guess it just hits a little harder,” Yonemura says. “That’s why they extended these donations to Changing Tides.”

With those gifts, Changing Tides was able to start a new program last fall: six to 10 free therapy sessions for Asian American and Pacific Islander youth, targeting the 16 to 25 age range.

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Sunabe, who works as an intake coordinator for the program, says in its first week, they had 14 applicants. Now they’ve seen more than 50.

“We are seeing a real explosion of people seeking mental health treatment and support in the Asian American community,” Sunabe says.

She says nearly 50% of those who have reached out to Changing Tides have been in such distress that they’ve considered suicide.

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“I’ve spoken to so many young people since November and it’s been really striking how much anxiety and depression is being experienced,” Sunabe laments.

At the same time, Sunabe says there’s still a generational divide among some Asian American families when it comes to seeking help with mental health. Generally, she’s found that parents have not been supportive of their kids seeking treatment, and they don’t think it’s of any value.

Yonemura, the outreach coordinator, says that’s why Changing Tides has built a network of culturally-sensitive therapists who may know personally what their clients are experiencing.

“They say, 'I went into this profession because it wasn’t something that was on my radar when I was a kid, so if I can pay it forward, sign me up',” Yonemura notes.

There’s still a need for more therapists who know first-hand the Asian American experience, according to Yonemura. And he says the community is still struggling. Sunabe attributes part of that to what studies have shown is a sharp increase in AAPI hate incidents since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Definitely the hyper-vigilance that we as Asian Americans experience now in the community — not knowing if someone is going to attack us because of the rise in [AAPI] hate — that’s another stressor,” Sunabe says.

UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of community health sciences Gilbert Gee says research shows that Asian Americans have fairly high needs for mental health services, but tend to underutilize them.

“Giving youth vouchers to remove one of those barriers I think is a great idea,” Gee says.

He adds that it's also important to remember the strength of the AAPI community, which has experienced so much hatred recently.

“I have talked to a lot of people in the past couple of years — Asian Americans — who have decided to cancel vacations because they were fearful of going out,” Gee says. “So for some people, just going out to the store is actually a small act of success and resilience at their [personal] level.”

Yonemura, who is open about working through his own depression on the Changing Tides mental health podcast that he hosts, says he wants the group’s reach to expand as far as possible. Changing Tides already hosts a weekly peer support group on Zoom, and the podcast doesn’t shy away from discussing substance use and serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

“Being able to see Asian Americans in these spaces, talking about these subjects regardless of who they are, is really the most impactful part of it for me,” Yonemura says with pride.

Since the program started, Yonemura notes there’s been a second local family that lost a young life to suicide.

For Sunabe, it’s a reminder of the importance of the work they’re doing.

Last week, Changing Tides announced an additional number of spots opening up for its free therapy session program.

“We feel like we’re saving lives,” Sunabe says with a somber sense of duty. “Because we have experienced these families who have lost their child through taking their own life, we want to prevent that happening as much as possible.”

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.