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Hate crimes, pandemic push more Asian Americans to seek therapy


Even before the coronavirus pandemic, life was not as easy as it looked for Julian Sarafian. He was the major of his high school, a White House intern, and a Harvard Law School graduate, but he was also in a multi-year battle with anxiety.

Then, in November of last year, he exhibited symptoms of Covid-19 and his girlfriend tested positive for the virus. The illness, in addition to his anxiety, months of social isolation and fear for the safety of Asian family members, made him depressed.

“It was just kind of the icing on the cake that was, like, the middle finger of 2020,” he said.

Mr. Sarafian, 27, from Sacramento, went to therapy a month later, but it wasn’t as easy as making a phone call. He had to explain to his parents, including his Vietnamese mother, why he needed extra care.

After a few months of therapy, he said, he “has reached a point where he looks a lot brighter than ever.”

Mental health is strongly stigmatized among Asian Americans, whose older generations, like older generations in other cultures, tend to view therapy as unworthy or a sign of weakness, experts said. But the pandemic and the specter of hate crimes committed by those who have linked the coronavirus to China have prompted a growing number of Asian Americans to overcome the stigma and turn to therapy for help, according to more than a dozen therapists, psychiatrists and psychology professors.

“People were just stuck at home with their thoughts and worries, and there was no outlet,” said Lia Huynh, a psychotherapist in Milpitas, Calif.

More than 40% of Asian Americans were anxious or depressed during the pandemic, compared to less than 10% before the virus hit, according to the Asian American Psychological Association. The Kaiser Family Foundation found similar rates for all adult Americans, but experts said the numbers for Asian Americans were likely higher than reported because some Asian Americans are struggling. comfortable talking about mental health.

More than a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, fear of hate crimes has not abated for a quarter of Asian adults in the United States. They reported that over the past few months, they still feared being threatened or physically assaulted, according to a poll released this week by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

For Jess Stowe, 35, and Terry Wei, 36, Covid was pretty scary, but now they feared they would be attacked.

“Hatred against Asians is more terrifying than the global pandemic,” said Ms. Wei, who hosts the “UnModeling Minorities” podcast with Ms. Stowe. “I can’t change what people fear.”

That fear was fueled, in part, by President Donald J. Trump’s racist characterizations of the virus, which spread the false narrative that Asian Americans were responsible for the pandemic.

A third of Asian Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in April said they feared attack. Anti-Asian hate crimes in the nation’s largest cities soared 164% in the first quarter of this year from the first quarter of last year, according to researchers at California State University, San Bernardino. Hate crimes globally increased by 2% last year, according to the researchers.

Americans of Asian, African American and Hispanic descent tend to view mental health as more stigmatized than Americans of European descent, according to a study published last year in the journal BMC Public Health.

But that perspective changed for some Asian Americans on March 16, when six Asian women, who were targeted because of their race, were murdered in shootings at Atlanta-area spas. Asian American communities had spoken of anti-Asian violence, but that dialogue became part of the national conversation after the shooting.

Suddenly, many Asian Americans realized that hate crimes were a potentially deadly reality, mental health professionals said.

After a year of dealing with racist micro-aggression and health issues, and enduring a lifetime of institutional racism and mental health stigma, the shootings have prompted many Asian Americans to register for therapy.

“It ultimately broke the stigma because people were suffering so much,” said Diana Liao, mental health counselor and psychotherapist in New York City.

Some Asian therapists have been inundated with requests from companies and organizations to organize support groups for employees, said Catherine Vuky, clinical supervisor at South Cove Community Health Center in Boston.

Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist, said some Japanese Americans came to see her because the hate crimes brought up memories of when the U.S. government locked them in internment camps during World War II.

Ms Huynh, the California psychotherapist, said she has received many calls from patients who are struggling to find a therapist who understands their culture. “People are like, ‘I just want someone who understands that I can’t just answer my parents,” ”she said.

The mental toll of threats and assaults was difficult for some to balance the principle of “saving face”, an idea shared by many Asian immigrants that people will get a bad rap if they do not preserve their dignity.

Therapy can traditionally be viewed in Asian cultures as a way to lose face, said Kevin M. Chun, professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco.

There is also a generational barrier to mental health care, said Doris Chang, associate professor of psychology at New York University. Young people are less likely to have an internalized stigma about mental health, and older people are more likely to think they can solve their problems without help.

While a new generation of Asian Americans may forge a different conversation about mental health, measures like therapy can’t fix a problem they didn’t start, said Sherry C. Wang, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Santa Clara.

“If everyone would stand up and say, ‘Stop anti-Asian hatred’ and stand up for membership in Asian Americans, we would all be safer, healthier and happier,” he said. she declared.

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