Love the Lord with All Your Mind: Addressing mental well-being in the Asian American community

VALLEY FORGE, PA (01/18/2024)—Suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian Americans ages 15 to 24 in 2019. In 2018, Asian Americans were 60 percent less likely to have received mental health treatment as compared to non-Hispanic whites.

Let these numbers sink in.

Anti-Asian rhetoric, hate crime and discrimination had been on the rise for years in the United States—and then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. For Asian Americans, the memories of the spike in anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic are still fresh. In 2021, the number of hate crime incidents targeting Asian Americans increased by 472 percent compared to 2019. More than 11,000 self-reported instances of anti-Asian racism were received by the organization Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and May 2023; the overwhelming majority of these incidents involved shunning, bullying, harassment and other types of discrimination. For example, in 2020, Asian restaurants saw an 18.4 percent decline in traffic (an estimated $7.42 billion—about $23 per person in the United States—in lost revenue), with the declines being more pronounced in regions where Donald Trump is more popular.

The “Chinese virus” narrative, popularized by then-President Donald Trump, brought anti-Asian racism to the surface. According to a Pew Research study, approximately one-third of Asian Americans know someone in their community who has been threatened or attacked since the beginning of the pandemic. Refugees from South Asia who are escaping military conflict are highly likely to be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Such experiences are deeply harmful to human beings’ physical and mental health.

Experts’ perspectives

“People’s reports of discrimination and unfair treatment have been linked to major depressive disorders, clinical anxiety disorders and mood disorders,” said Gilbert Gee, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “It takes a pretty large toll on people’s mental health.”

Deciding to take an active role in managing one’s mental well-being may be a complicated process.

A shared cultural background between the mental health practitioner and client may be helpful. Wesley Sun, manager of Clinical Pastoral Education at the UChicago Medicine health system, said, “I don’t want to speak for all Asians, because there’s a lot of us, but based on the ones that I’m aware of …[w]hat would be helpful is if the facilitator or the practitioner is from the same culture. It would be easier on the immigrant [who needs mental health services] to say, ‘Okay, hey, there’s a therapist that speaks your language. There’s a therapist who understands your culture, who is, in fact, from that culture, who is an immigrant.’”

Other people’s perceptions of an individual seeking mental health help may create tensions. Myungsu Kim, a therapist at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy in Chicago who works with clients of diverse backgrounds, said, “some American parents think counseling is not for their children, they don’t want them to pay for their children to see a therapist because they are concerned about what other people will think of them.” This includes some Asian American parents. People may negate their symptoms for a long time before seeking help, says Kim. “Lots of them don’t want to accept that they may have symptoms of depression if they function well. They go to work; they communicate with other people. They might feel some fatigue, but they carry on for as long as they can.”

Barriers to seeking help, explains Kim, can be financial as well as cultural. So, for Asian Americans who are Christians, their first step in their mental welfare journey may well be their pastor, someone who likely has a shared background and is familiar. Although pastors are providers of pastoral care, they are not counselors—and that is an important distinction—they may be able to refer their congregants to appropriate services.

ABHMS supports projects that focus on Asian American mental well-being

To address the problem of mental health challenges in the Asian American community, and specifically in churches, American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) has funded multiple projects that proposed interculturally competent solutions using the Palmer grant. One of them was “Mental Health Matters,” a project by the Karen Baptist Churches USA. The Karen originate from Burma, or Myanmar. Many came to the United States as refugees.

Through nine training sessions with youth and adults, “Mental Health Matters” addressed issues around mental health such as ADHD and efficacy of medical treatment, as well as diverse identities and the importance of acceptance of young people who identify as LGBTQ+ in prevention of suicide and self-harm. The sessions were facilitated with attention to the character and experiences of the Karen community. The participants praised this effort.

“Mental health was a really good thing to touch on,” said a young woman who took part in the final session at the Global Karen Baptist Youth Fellowship in Amarillo, Texas, in July 2023, “because it’s something that’s not talked about a lot.”

“We seek to nurture the mental health of our young people by promoting awareness of mental health issues, teaching coping skills and tools, and opening doors for them to have conversations, share their struggles and seek help,” said Tansy Kadoe, the project leader and a licensed associate marital and family therapist. “We strive to help the young people to define and embrace their identity as beloved children of God. A misplaced identity based on one’s own sense of self or others’ perceptions is a severe cause of stress that erodes self-esteem and self-efficacies, often correlated with mental health issues.”

The Chin Association of Maryland was another organization awarded a Palmer grant for a project that addressed young Asian Americans’ mental health. A majority of the Chin community, like the Karen, came to the U.S. as refugees from Burma. Many struggle with the trauma of refugee flight, adapting to a new culture, racial discrimination, and everyday stresses of school and family.

The project, led by Zo Tum Hmung, consisted of three interlinked events involving members of three local Chin churches and other Asian American communities: A talk with experts, testimony sharing, and a soccer tournament designed to foster stronger relationships within and beyond the community. “They had the opportunity to practice new strategies for coping with anxiety and stress and began to heal from past traumas,” said Hmung. By engaging more with their own Chin communities and especially with other Asian communities, they began feeling more comfortable socializing with others,” he added. “They understood the power of learning from others’ struggles. Importantly, now they will know how to respond when they see or experience anti-Asian discrimination and will understand that they are protected by law against such discrimination.”

Forthcoming webinar series: “Love the Lord with All Your Mind”

In addition to funding these and other projects that focus on the important topic of mental health in Asian American communities, ABHMS is committed to providing high-quality training opportunities for pastors who inevitably come across mental health issues in their work. The webinar series “Love the Lord with All Your Mind” is the latest offering by ABHMS’ Asian Ministries and the Center for Continuous Learning that addresses these challenges.

The “Love the Lord with All Your Mind” webinar series is designed to be an easy access point for Asian American pastors and leaders, or those who serve Asian American communities, to explore the call of Christ followers to care for and submit to God their mind just as their heart, soul, and body (Matt. 22:36-40). This is through sessions touching on the topic of faith and mental well-being generally, as well as through more specific topics like supporting youth and young adults, and trauma-informed communities such as refugee populations.

  • The January 24 session, “Seeking Wellness in Asian American Communities,” will focus on understanding these issues as they exist in our congregations and communities. It will be led by Dr. Jessica Chenfeng, associate professor of marriage and family therapy at Fuller Seminary.
  • The February 29 session, “Supporting Asian American Youth and Young Adults,” will explore how to best support youth and young adults who exhibit signs of mental distress. It will be facilitated by Rev. Jason Ashimoto, the senior pastor of the Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles, and Grace Yoshimoto, a school counselor.
  • The March 14 session, “Serving as Trauma-Informed Leaders in Asian American Communities,” will discuss how to serve especially vulnerable populations with awareness and care. It will be guided by Tansy Kadoe and the Rev. Dr. Sanghoon Yoo, the founder of the Arizona Trauma Informed Faith Coalition.

“For many Asian ethnic groups, the honor-shame culture has deep roots that grip our communities; so much so that this 4.5 generation Chinese American is still working to reconcile how honor and shame manifest themselves in my own decision making and worldview,” said the Rev. Michele Turek, ABHMS’ national coordinator for Asian Ministries. “When it comes to the topic of mental well-being the struggles are very real within Asian Americans, but the first steps to admitting their presence, to reach out to someone for help, or to seek medical advice if needed breeches into a place of vulnerability and perceived shortcoming that is hard to cross into. But that doesn’t mean that the issues go away; it just means that we’re not talking about them.”

To register for the webinars in the “Love the Lord with All Your Mind” series, click here.

(Photo by Linh Koi on Unsplash.)