People with disabilities have always had a voice. We’re just teaching the world different ways to listen.
A disability victim services agency

Deaf woman with short hair signing

On Asian Mental Health, from an Asian Mental Health Therapist

May 27, 2022 / Mental Health

Three young Asian men talking together drinking coffee

by Mathew Varughese, LPC, CHES®

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month.

Plenty of studies show that Asians have a higher stigma toward mental health struggles. Many cultural values that exist within the Asian culture seem to have a role in influencing an Asian individual’s decision to seek professional mental health help. Personally, in my own life, I have seen first-hand the resistance that other Asians face when talking about seeking mental health help.

Maybe it is no coincidence then that May is both Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe the forces that be wanted to put these two matters in the forefront of people’s attention. Mental health has been found to be related to variety of adverse health outcomes, but despite these findings, we live in a world that still views mental health as a weakness.

I recall a time when an Asian international student approached me to talk about a mental health concern because he found out that I was pursuing a degree in mental health. He was eager to talk to me and get my advice on what he should do, but when I encouraged professional help, he outright refused. This is a common occurrence as Asian international students tend to seek out more informal rather than professional mental health help. This scenario has played out several times over the course of my seven years in the United States.

I know it can be hard to grasp the idea of communicating with an absolute stranger about intimate problems that you might be facing. Prior to becoming a licensed mental health therapist, I engaged in therapy myself to really know what it feels like to open up to someone about mental health. Through that process, I was able to see and feel first-hand how uncomfortable it was, at first, to talk to someone new about my concerns. Furthermore, with the Asian culture being more collectivistic, it is hard for individuals to talk about themselves and disengage themselves from the culture that they come from. When we talk about the issues that we face, we cannot just disconnect from our family or set boundaries right away. These ideas, if necessary, need to be slowly presented to us as an option and as something we come to in our own time.

Unfortunately, many Asian international students do not choose to seek professional help for their mental health. For those that do, many times they feel that therapists do not understand their lived experience, and they often feel invalidated after seeking therapy. I’ve spoken to so many Asian international students who have decided to no longer seek professional help because of a bad experience.

Therefore, as we commemorate these two events this month, I would like to share some of my personal views about how best to engage Asian international students in therapy. Many of these are basic steps that all therapists should do anyway, so they should not come as a surprise, but they might be worth keeping in mind especially when working with Asians.

  1. Validate our emotions and experience – I have heard many Asian international students state that their therapist told them they misunderstood what had happened or told them what “actually” happened. While it may be true that we might interpret things differently than others because of cultural differences, our interpretation of an event is still valid to us and trying to tell us otherwise without acknowledging our view of it may feel invalidating
  2. Understand our cultural values – It is on therapists to be competent to serve people from all cultures and background. As such, it is important to understand the cultural values that an Asian individual might have. It may not be possible for us to set certain boundaries or cut our family out of our lives, even if we do not have a healthy relationship with them. Again, what we need to know is that you understand the complexity of the situation and help us manage our emotions pertaining to the matter.
  3. Understand the differences within groups - It is also important to understand the nuances within this group, as the experience of an Asian American might be very different from the experience of an Asian international student. There may also be differences based on nationality, gender, number of years in the United States, and so on.
  4. Understand the stigma – Mental health is stigmatized in the Asian community. Often times, talking about personal issues to a stranger means bringing shame to the family, as you are considered to be airing your dirty laundry. Think about the different struggles that we overcame that led us to sit across from you.

This is by no means an extensive list, and I have by no means conducted any form of study to gather these recommendations. They are based off of my personal experiences and the experiences of other Asian international students I know. I end this by saying that each individual is unique, and it is important to ask and listen to what they have to say. That is the key in every counseling relationship.

Mathew Varughese is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in the State of Ohio. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Health Education at the University of Toledo and graduated with his Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Bowling Green State University in 2017. Mathew is originally from Malaysia and came to the United States in 2015 to expand on his knowledge on mental health. Ever since arriving in the United States, he has been an avid advocate for the mental health of international students. He has talked to international students from different countries about the importance of mental health and conducted a workshop in the University of Toledo in collaboration with the Office of International Students and Scholar Services about the mental health resources available on campus. Mathew has also shared about mental health with other groups in Malaysia, mainly in his home church in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is currently conducting research on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of Asian international students for his dissertation.