Break the Sense of Stigma, Break the Silence- Highlights from the AAPI White House Briefing on Mental Health and Suicide

We’d like to thank you for taking time to read this very special blog…it’s our 100th Blog!!  We’d like to thank all of you who have joined our efforts to end the stigma around mental health in our communities. We are stronger each day because we find the strength in each other’s struggles, and we do not equate illness with weakness.  We are breaking the silence in many ways, one of which is our blog, and we thank you for supporting us in our effort.  You break the silence each time you read, like, and share our blog, and we thank you for your support of our work and the mission of CHAI.

By Razia F. Kosi, LCSW-C

May 10th has been declared Asian Pacific American Mental Health Awareness Day in California and Austin, TX. In Washington DC several key AAPI leaders held a White House briefing on Suicide Prevention and Mental white house inviteHealth. Jason Tengco, the Advisor on Public Engagement on the White House Initiative on AAPI, set the tone for the three-hour session when he urged us to “Break the sense of shame and break the silence.” Modeling these simple words, he took the brave and ground-breaking action of telling his own family’s story about his brother’s struggle with mental health issues which ultimately lead to his brother, Jon, taking his own life. The audience of AAPI mental health professionals, community leaders and family and friends affected by suicide and mental illness held their breath, and let their tears flow, with Jason’s personal and truthful story. The emotion in the room was palpable and the ability to connect to the deep pain of his story was honest and real.

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) and the White House Office of Public Engagement Briefing on Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, May 10, 2013 (Photo by WHIAAPI).

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) and the White House Office of Public Engagement Briefing on Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, May 10, 2013 (Photo by WHIAAPI).

Several people from top leadership positions chose to “Break the sense of shame and break the silence” by telling their own personal stories about mental illness or the death of a loved one due to suicide. What resonated from the stories was the shared pain AND a resounding sense of hope. A call to action and personal declaration that they will not continue to allow families to go through the pain of a death from suicide or the lack of understanding about mental health. Both Richard McKeon, PhD, Branch Chief of Suicide Prevention of SAMHSA and D.J. Ida, PhD, with the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA) reiterated that the beautiful men, women, children or adolescents who attempt or complete a suicide don’t want to die – they just want the pain to go away. Dr. Ida shared Rosalyn Carter’s message about mental health and stated “People really do recover and we must deliver a message of hope.”

In addition to personal testimonies, the briefing was rich with data about the AAPI community and mental health. The problem with the AAPI data is the lumping of this extraordinarily diverse group into the term AAPI. The term AAPI includes people of Japanese origin living in this country for three or four generations, newly arrived Bhutanese refugees, first or second generation Indians, people who arrived from war-torn Vietnam decades ago, and those from the islands of the Philippines to the Pacifics  and many more countries encompassed in this generic grouping.

We share a sense of unity and a greater awareness of the diversity and unique needs of the communities within the AAPI umbrella.  Larke Huang, PhD, the director of SAMHA Office of Behavioral Health Equity, stated that the
prevalence rates of mental health issues for the AAPI community is slightly lower across the ethnic groups, but the burden of the disease might be greater. This means that AAPIs are less likely to seek mental health care – SAMHSA’s 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health  revealed that while 15.8% of AAPIs reported any mental illness, only 5.3% sought any treatment for mental health issues. In comparison to other ethnic groups, 20.6% of Whites report mental illness and 16.2% will seek services.  In additional, AAPIs will not seek services in a timely manner and will only obtain services when their illness has progressed to a more severe state than compared to white counterparts seeking services.
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The honesty of the personal testimonies also voiced the damaging stereotypes and racism that AAPIs may feel in trying to access treatment to services. Ramey Ko, who is a Commissioner for the President’s Advisory Commission on AAPIs, expressed how the “model minority stereotype” was a burden and a myth. The symptoms of his bipolar disorder were full-blown when he was in college, but he experienced his symptoms as signs of his “laziness.” He lived with the belief that he was a “fraud” and that any day people would figure out that his academic accolades and achievements were not a real representation of his abilities. It wasn’t until his friends and family confronted his patterns of behavior with him and encouraged him to seek treatment that he was diagnosed and was able to give a name to his feelings, behaviors and thoughts. His honesty with himself and with the community helped to start the Asian Behavioral Health Association in Austin, TX with Sonia Kotecha, a social worker in Austin.

One of the most compelling stories shared that morning was from Gloria Huh, a Doctoral Student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Maryland College Park.  Gloria calmly and purposefully stood at the podium and announced to a room of 200 strangers and a live-streaming audience of millions that when she was a freshman in college, a sexual assault was forced upon her.  The resulting trauma changed her from a fun, happy, bubbly, young woman into one that was sad, fearful, angry and withdrawn. The shame and hurt she felt and did not want to share with her family remained hidden and pushed down and she became more depressed. Her own experiences with racism growing up, coupled with the racism and discrimination she had witnessed her parents be subjected to, caused her to distrust seeking services from mental health professionals who were not of Asian background. It wasn’t until she was encouraged in her doctoral training to go to a therapist to become a better counseling psychologist. In therapy, she started to address the multitude of emotions that were buried deep within her. She expressed gratitude for her South Asian male therapist, Cherian Verghese, PhD, at the summit, and her testimony uplifted the message that recovery is possible, leaving us with a sense of hope. We, as a community, can be healing agents in addressing mental health; we can be the ones to break the sense of shame and to break the silence. If we won’t take the first step in doing this, then who will?


To read more about Raising Awareness about Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the AAPI Community from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, click here.


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