Voices Unheard: Addressing the Lack of AAPI Mental Health Providers in America

May 21, 2021

Trevor San Antonio, 26, is from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he received his Bachelor’s in Health Education at the University of Florida. In 2018, Trevor made the big move to the other side of the country in order to attend the University of Southern California’s occupational therapy program where his current focus is in hand rehabilitation. Throughout his experiences, Trevor has developed a passion for community involvement and storytelling to bring awareness to communities whose voices are typically left unheard. Through this, he hopes to uplift these voices in order to improve the wellbeing and quality of life of the individuals he interacts with.

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Despite the stigma of mental health in my community and my own personal pride, I sought out therapy for the first time this year. 

I’m currently finishing up my residency at an outpatient hand clinic in order to receive my doctoral degree in occupational therapy. When I started my program, it dawned on me that this would be the last hurdle in my academic career before I became an actual adult who, from my point of view, essentially worked for the rest of their life. The pandemic had affected my mental health in a way that I didn’t expect it to. As a result of this harsh reality, my mental health began to decline.

I was fortunate enough that my university made accessing mental health services an easy process. I logged onto the student health portal, scanned the list of available therapists during my available times amidst my busy schedule, and booked my first session. 

A common experience I hear from people who are seeking mental health services is that it is challenging to find the right therapist for you. Thankfully, I was able to look up the therapists in the universities directory and view their profiles. To my surprise, I found a therapist who had experience in providing professional services to Asian Americans. However, I recognized that this isn’t a common occurrence. Not only is it typically onerous to find the right therapist for oneself, it is even more difficult to find one who shares a common background as yours and is able to address your specific situation in your specific context. 

It has become increasingly evident that there is a need for culturally competent care by and for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. According to the American Psychology Association In 2015, 86 percent of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were white, 5 percent were Asian, 5 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were black/African-American and 1 percent were multiracial or from other racial/ethnic groups.

Studies indicate that Asian-Americans endure poorer mental health than their non-Asian peers. Despite this statistic, Asians in America tend to underutilize mental health servicesThose who do reach out for services often do not receive minimally adequate care and drop out of services at faster rates than other racial groups. 

Multiple studies have identified both enculturation and acculturation as significant factors which impact how Asians view mental health and receiving psychological services. Barriers such as mental health literacy, attitudes towards help-seeking behaviors, perceived stigmatization, and cultural mistrust deter Asian-American from accessing these services.

A prominent example of one of these barriers impacting Asian health in America is the “model minority” stereotype which implies innate intelligence and success based on race, invalidating hard work. This societally-based internalized pressure is often an underlying cause of mental illness. Asians also experience external adversity through racially-based trauma, which has significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, further impacting mental wellbeing.

As violent acts towards Asian communities in America continues to become more conspicuous, the need for mental health professionals who have the capacity to not only understand the experiences of the AAPI community, but also address their needs in order to improve their wellbeing and quality of life is increasingly necessary. 

Dr. Jenny Wang is a first-generation, Taiwanese American clinical psychologist in Texas who is the creator of the Asians for Mental Health Directory and the owner of the @asiansformentalhealth page on Instagram. In addition, she, along with me, Dr. Elissa Lee, and Jojo Luk, are now working to establish an Asians for Mental Health Scholarship Fund to support AAPI students interested in a career in mental health in honor of AAPI Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. We hope to meet this need by providing scholarships to AAPI individuals who are active students in a mental health-related graduate degree program. If interested in donating, your donation will go directly to the scholarship fund to support a future AAPI mental health provider.

Dr. Wang states, “It is impossible to understand a person’s mental health without considering the impact of their racial and ethnic identity on how they see their world and their place in it. […] This is why I believe that it is critical to raise up new generations of Asian mental health providers to meet the increasing demands for mental health care within the Asian American community.” 

It is past time that the voices of the AAPI community are finally heard and understood. We as a society have a responsibility to become aware of the issues impacting marginalized communities, educate ourselves on these issues as well as their histories, and use our voices to bring about purposeful change to improve the wellbeing of all individuals. 

For more information and resources, please visit one of my colleagues’ articles here: https://www.channelkindness.org/caring-for-our-aapi-community/

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