May 19, 2022 | Maricel Laquindanum, Operations & Project Coordinator, American Art Therapy Association
While meditating on Mental Health Awareness Month, I was reminded of the strides in mental health awareness the AANHPI (Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander) community has taken. Mental well-being is becoming more commonplace as newer generations of AANHPI take bold steps to create conversations and provide resources for our struggles. Though our communities look towards the future with the integration of mental and physical health, I found myself reconciling with our past to understand why these steps are so monumental. Mental health awareness elicits two deep-rooted insecurities found within the AANHPI communities — being seen as weak or different.
AANHPI communities may strive to bury weakness with hard work to maintain a sense of normalcy for the sake of the larger community. Often, we do not want to burden others, so we work harder to maintain the “status quo”. We may prioritize collective health instead of emphasizing the individual. In doing so, we burn ourselves out time and time again in a cyclical nature that never ends.
In my personal experience, I felt that an air of shame was attached to any sign of mental illness. At the age of eight, I was already struggling with feelings of depression and anxiety. By sixteen, these conditions grew to the point where suicidal ideation was at the forefront of my mind. I kept quiet about my dire situation because I knew that I would be shamed and denied help. When I grew desperate, I nervously asked my mom if I could start therapy. Her gut reaction was to say no. When I asked why she simply said it was too expensive. As time went on, I found interest in psychology to help sort out what was going through my mind and to help me understand my struggles. I was asked to immediately drop it because she did not want me involving myself with anything “crazy” and dealing with “crazy” people because any relation to mental health was stigmatized. Any sign of being different or acting differently from what is seen as “nice” and “well-behaved” in AANHPI communities can automatically be shamed and deemed “crazy.”
These two instances illustrate the deep insecurities we can face in AANHPI communities. Not only was it weak for me to confide that I was struggling, but it was also a slight attack on my mom’s ability to provide for her family. It was an expense that reminded her of the economic challenges we, as a family, were facing. In retrospect, I see that it is a luxury and a privilege to have access to a diagnosis and treatment. Due to economic disparities, mental health care is often inaccessible to AANHPI communities. In addition to economic difficulties, my conversations posed a threat to the “picture-perfect” façade we showed as a family unit because it meant we would be different from our family friends. Being weak, both mentally and financially, and different from others are two main reasons AANHPI individuals may not seek therapy in any capacity. Since therapy is gatekept by economic challenges and experiencing mental illness or trauma is silenced, individuals in many AANHPI communities can spiral into the same problems without healing.
Shame is often the root that tangles itself into many AANHPI communities, which sustains this wheel of torment to keep going. When we cannot talk of our struggles, they are never brought to light, further exacerbating the situation. Working at the American Art Therapy Association allows me to see how using art and, namely, art therapy can untangle the work of shame within the frames of our lives. Although my struggles were worsened by silence and repression, art is one of the antidotes and amplifiers that disassemble the lies I told myself. I write to unweave shame, unlearn feelings of weakness, and cherish the beauty of being different. Creativity and art are powerhouses that can dismantle false strongholds in our lives. Even when we are not conditioned or encouraged to speak about our struggles, art therapy brings us powerful tools to express them.
Amplifying silenced voices in the AANHPI communities through discovery, exploration, and engagement with art therapy is a stride in itself. We can take the taboo of mental health and reconstruct our community into one that is inclusive, open, welcoming, and, above all, filled with understanding. There is immense value in our collectivism that we learned from our parents. We do not believe in being strangers to our people. We know it is our duty to be there for one another in our community. With this as our foundation alongside the life-changing tools of mental health awareness, we can rewrite the layer of shame that clouds our intertwined and dynamic circle. Now, we rewrite weakness as strength and difference as beauty.
AANHPI Mental Health Resources:
Asian Mental Health Collective
National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association
Selected Patient Information in Asian Languages