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Working at the intersections of Asian American identity, mental health, and racial trauma

Laura Marti – July 05, 2024

The US has experienced multiple waves of immigration as policies changed over decades. One of the waves was in 1965, when Congress replaced the national origins system with a preference system designed to unite immigrant families and attract skilled immigrants to the United States. This bill drastically shifted the source countries of immigrants away from Northwestern Europe. The majority of applicants for immigration visas in the following decades started coming from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe. As a result of this legislation, the number of immigrants arriving each year would more than triple from approximately 320,000 in the 1960s to over a million per year by the 21st century.

Children of Immigrants

Many of us only hear about immigration in relation to the southern border or legal status, often accompanied by strong opinions and misinformation. The public is generally unfamiliar with the complexities of immigration policy. The U.S. immigration system is overburdened and in need of reform, with a complex history that has left millions of immigrants and their children struggling to navigate it. Leaving behind one’s nation of origin, where language and culture are familiar, to come to a foreign nation with many unknowns, can be difficult and traumatic to navigate. It has left millions of immigrants and children of immigrants struggling as they try to build a new life.

There is a unique set of problems that children of immigrants have to navigate as they grow up straddling two cultures. Children of immigrants can experience trauma before, during, or after migration, which can lead to psychological stress and mental health issues, and often their parents do not talk about their struggles. These experiences can include: 

  • Separation: Children may be separated from their parents or guardians during migration or due to parental deportation. This can lead to “toxic stress”, which is a combination of adversity and a lack of adult support and stability. 
  • Violence: Children may witness violence or be directly threatened by gangs. 
  • Loss: Children may lose family members. 
  • Racism and discrimination: Children may experience racism and discrimination. 
  • Economic deprivation: Children may experience economic deprivation. 
  • High expectations: Parents may place high expectations on their children to succeed, which can lead to pressure.

Fortunately, there are emerging mental health professionals who are reaching out to them who are children of immigrants themselves. They are working toward healing their own generation, as well as the generations before them. Here I want to highlight two Asian American mental health professionals who are doing ground-breaking work and making a difference in conversations in the online spaces around racial healing and mental health in Asian immigrant communities. They have inspired me.

Culturally Enough

Brown Girl Therapy – Sahaj Kaur Kohli

IG – Brown Girl Therapy (@browngirltherapy) 

FB – Brown Girl Therapy

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, M.A. Ed & HD, NCC, is a mental health professional, a daughter of Indian immigrants, and a granddaughter of refugees. She is the founder of Brown Girl Therapy, an online community for children of immigrants. She writes and researches extensively about the intersection of identity, culture, and mental health.

As a mental health professional, Sahaj helps immigrant families and adult children of immigrants identify their dominant stories — what they’ve been told and what they tell themselves — when it comes to feeling ‘enough’ in their differing cultural identities. She knows what it’s like to feel the push-and-pull of these differing cultural values, norms, and expectations.

This piece from Teen Vogue gives a lot of insight into Sahaj Kohli’s journey, as well as the need to adjust our mental health perspectives toward recognizing the collectivist cultures of many immigrant communities. In it she shares:

“Going to therapy for the first time can be tough for anyone, but as a daughter of Indian immigrants, and the first person in my family to be born in the West, it was particularly hard for me. In my family, and often in my culture, therapy is thought of as taboo and most issues surrounding mental health care get grouped into a pile labeled “white people stuff.”

“In fact, taking care of yourself can be considered selfish. After all, I grew up in a collectivist culture where I was expected and encouraged to prioritize family and community over everything else – including myself. I was raised with values, norms, and expectations at home that were diametrically opposed to those in the American environment I was socialized in.”

“Counseling and mental health are not one-size-fits-all, yet the individualistic western perspective was embedded in the training I received and the tools I learned. It was obvious to me how many of us are left out of the narrative. Mental health cannot be understood in isolation from identity and culture and I quickly became impassioned to bridge the gap between Western psychology and cultural nuances for immigrant-origin folks.”

Sahaj recently released her first book, But What Will People Say?: Navigating Mental Health, Identity, Love, and Family Between Cultures (May 2024). The book is meant to help children of immigrants live a healthier, more authentic life, and to feel ‘culturally enough.’ It’s also to help people bridge those cultural and generational gaps within their families and relationships. She includes tips for navigating guilt — and specifically guilt trips — and identifying core beliefs.

She hopes her book can help people challenge their stories and question where they come from, to help them reauthor their narrative.

Mental Health and Cultural Stigma

Asians for Mental Health – Dr. Jenny Tzu-Mei Wang

IG – @asiansformentalhealth

FB – Asians for Mental Health

Dr. Jenny Wang is a Taiwanese American clinical psychologist, international speaker, and mental health activist who works from a social justice and trauma-informed framework. She is the founder of the Instagram community, @asiansformentalhealth, which promotes awareness regarding Asian American mental health needs and unique immigrant experiences. With over 98K followers, she uses her platform to destigmatize mental health and increase access to mental health education for Asian diaspora communities. 

Dr. Wang spearheaded the Asians for Mental Health therapist directory (www.asiansformentalhealth.com) to help AAPI communities more effectively access mental health care that is culturally reverent and compassionate. Dr. Wang is one of 2024’s Verywell Mind 25 honorees. She hosts many Instagram Live interviews with other mental health professionals who are doing related work. What especially stands out to me is her gentle manner as she talks with people.

Jenny Wang addresses the deep-seated cultural stigmas that often deter Asian Americans from seeking mental health support. Her work focuses on breaking down these barriers by promoting culturally competent therapy and encouraging open dialogue about mental health within Asian American families. She points out that many Asian American children of immigrants grow up with a sense of duty and pressure to succeed, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. By acknowledging these pressures and providing resources tailored to their unique needs, Wang advocate

Dr. Wang’s book, Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health for Asian Americans (May 2022) is a crucial resource for the rapidly growing community of Asian Americans, immigrants, children of immigrants, and other minorities and marginalized people to practice mental and emotional self-care.

She shares this about her book:

“This book is scary for me to share. It exposes my honest struggles. It reveals our familial and intergenerational pain. It brings possible scrutiny and shame to myself and those I love because I speak to the dark and difficult spaces in my life. And yet, I am stepping forward honestly with you and this community to say that our mental health cannot be held hostage by silence any longer. In speaking to the darkness, we bring in the light and a chance for healing, together.”

This piece from Yale Daily News (2023) gives insight into the stigmatization of mental health challenges in AAPI communities and Dr. Wang’s more inclusive approach to start talking about mental health through the lens of the Asian American experience. It says:

“According to Wang, the immigrant experience has been so “colored by the ‘hard’” in media or historical accounts that the Western society forgets about the more poignant, beautiful moments embedded within immigrant struggle, and how acknowledging those moments can allow us to celebrate shared identities and slowly heal intergenerational trauma.”

“Growing up, Wang’s own parents frequently advised her not to wear clothes with print or to ‘be anything loud’ — and it wasn’t until she was a little older that she started asking herself what it was that her parents wanted to achieve, and what those questions revealed about the trauma of immigration, expulsion, poverty and discrimination that previous generations endured. Accepting that the two generations will never fully understand one another, or be completely transparent about their internal cracks and breaks, is a form of peace, Wang has come to learn.”

Racial Healing and the Path Forward

I wrote this blogpost because I have been inspired by Sahaj Kohli and Jenny Wang. I’ve laughed, cried, and felt affirmed from the things they’ve shared, even though my immigrant ancestors are 2 and mostly 3 generations back. I can see remnants of these issues in my own family, and I applaud the fact that they are now bringing them to the light. It’s my sense that if we took more time to listen to the stories of immigrants – both the struggles of what it took to emigrate and the struggles of building a life once here – we would find the empathy needed to help change narratives and build a more inclusive community. They are doing incredible work and everyone can learn from them. 

The intersection of Asian American identity, mental health, and the experiences of children of immigrants is a critical area for racial healing. To move forward, it is essential to create spaces where these conversations can occur and to provide support that is sensitive to the cultural nuances of the Asian American experience. Sahaj Kaur Kohli and Jenny Tzu Wang each contribute to this dialogue by offering perspectives that are both deeply personal and yet broadly applicable. Their work highlights the importance of addressing mental health within the context of cultural identity and the immigrant experience, in order to help bridge the cultural and generational gaps within immigrant families and relationships. By doing so, they pave the way for a more inclusive and compassionate approach to racial healing and a more inclusive approach to health care.


RESOURCES

Historical Overview of Immigration Policy | Center for Immigration Studies

8 Challenges of Growing Up as a Second-Generation Immigrant | Psychology Today.

Jenny Wang talks mental health and Asian identity – Yale Daily News 

Meet the Psychologist Championing AAPI Mental Health on IG (Jenny Wang) 

Immigration Trauma: What It Is and How to Cope 

The Immigrant Story

I Stand With Immigrants – Stories

BOOKS

Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans | Balance | May 2022

But What Will People Say?: Navigating Mental Health, Identity, Love, and Family Between Cultures | Penguin Life | May 2024


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.