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Combating mental health stigma starts with awareness, university AAPI panelists say

Sacramento Bee - 2/9/2024

Jason Choi, a first-generation Korean American at Sacramento State, said he spent his childhood under intense pressure to impress his parents.

“It’s just a struggle trying to meet expectations and make them proud in a way,” Choi, 19, said.

While listening to the story of another first-generation Asian American, Choi said he realized the importance of being your own person and prioritizing your mental health.

“I am not the person I am because of my parents,” Choi said. “I am who I am.”

It was the story of Ben Chida, who now serves as the chief deputy cabinet secretary for Gov. Gavin Newsom, that inspired Choi.

As part of the university’s Lunar New Year Speaker event Thursday, Chida shared his own story about navigating mental health as the child of Japanese American immigrants.

At 14, Chida spent every day in his room, depressed and isolating himself. He dropped out of high school with no plan. His family was facing financial troubles, and because of that stress, Chida said he was abused at home.

“For the first fifteen years of my life, the biggest thing I needed to do was silence the swirl of pain,” Chida said.

Chida said whenever he started emotionally “swirling,” he believed he wasn’t good enough — that he shouldn’t speak up about his issues. What helped him move forward was “checking that voice” by finding coping mechanisms and prioritizing his mental health.

But that was difficult at first.

From a young age, Chida was told that seeking mental health support was for the weak, a sentiment that resonates with those from Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Asian Americans often cite a fear of others finding out as reason to not seek mental health treatment, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey.

But by sharing his story, Chida wants to combat the stigma he faced growing up.

Back then, he said, he was taught to ignore he emotions and quietly push through hardship. As a child his parents would constantly tell him “gaman,” which roughly translates to “endure,” Chida said.

“While all of this is about all humans, Asian Americans have specific barriers because so many of our upbringings prioritized powering through, Chida said.

Mental health in AAPI communities

In Asian American and Pacific Island communities, which represents about 40 different groups, discussing mental health is often taboo, said Stephanie Tom, the state’s deputy treasurer and moderator of Thursday’s event.

Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, Tom said, those from AAPI backgrounds are the least likely out of any ethnic group to seek counseling. One study from the National Alliance of Mental Illness California found that only 23% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders receive mental health treatment.

“The AAPI community has so many sub-ethnics, so many different generations, and so what we wanted to achieve today is tell people that mental health is important,” Tom said. “There’s still a stigma within the community that’s not talked about.”

Even today, Chida still feels like his 14-year-old self though he is now a graduate of Harvard Law School and a leader in the AAPI community. He emphasized prioritizing well being over status and title.

“All I want to say to those people is: It’s not you, it’s the system and society,” Chida said. “All of us need to change and need to be more graceful, kinder and more empathetic to each other.”

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