On Addressing Asian American Mental Health: An Interview with Dr. Jenny T. Wang

The pandemic has been especially harmful for Asian Americans. With increased violence and worsening mental health, this community is in jeopardy.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jenny T. Wang, the author of Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans. We discussed Asian American mental health and how the pandemic has affected this specific community. Scroll down to view my interview, and feel free to post any comments or questions you may have!

What originally made you interested in mental health?

My earliest experiences with mental health were rooted in observing my parents in their early years of immigration. It came in bits and pieces in how they expressed emotion, how they addressed conflict, and even parented us. Of course back then I didn’t realize these were facets of mental health, but something about the emotions they held behind their daily experiences was very curious to me. For most of my childhood, mental health was framed in negative terms such as “crazy” or “out of control” and painted as forms of severe mental illness. But in fact, mental health permeates all aspects of our lives and intimately impacts how we think about ourselves and show up in the world.

In college, I was studying to become an accountant and yet found myself miserable and bored. It wasn’t until I took my first psychology 101 class during my junior year that I realized there was an entire field dedicated to understanding human emotions and relationships. But what really solidified my interest was the fact that despite being at a massive public university, there was not one single Asian American professor and graduate student that I had ever interacted with. This was surprising to me and made me realize how important it was for more Asian Americans to enter the field and pushed me to pursue graduate school in clinical psychology.

Tell me more about questioning hierarchical culture.

There is a value system within some Asian cultures that prioritizes and upholds social hierarchy, whether this hierarchy is reflected in age, gender, status, position, or power. This also exists outside of Asian culture of course but within Asian culture it is embedded in our interactions with elders, our parents and even strangers. Certain Asian languages have different phrases or honorifics designated for those who are older than us versus those who are younger. On the one hand, the deference to hierarchy is a sign of respect and honor and one that I embrace for my parents, grandparents and generations before me that I deeply respect. However, on the other hand, deference to hierarchy can be problematic if the person we are deferring to does not have our best interests in mind. For example, a boss or supervisor who repeatedly makes us uncomfortable with inappropriate remarks or gestures. If we adhere rigidly to hierarchy structure here, we might suppress our anger or discomfort because it is considered disrespectful to call out the inappropriate behavior of someone who is older than us. But on the other hand, does this form of self-silencing honor ourselves and protect us from potential harm from problematic people in our lives?

When we think about hierarchical culture, there are implicit or explicit rules that govern how people along the hierarchy should engage. Even within the hierarchy of race, if we adhered to the hierarchy that society has set up, then we would still be decades behind in the racial and social justice movement. And so, when we question hierarchy, we do so because we are trying to preserve our human dignity within hierarchical systems that may be unjust and inequitable. But perhaps, we can encourage people to be flexible and wise in how they honor hierarchy. We can help them discern times in which deferring to hierarchy is an expression of love and respect and times in which we cannot expect ourselves to defer to others because it risks putting ourselves in places of danger and harm.

Why is avoiding emotions dangerous?

When we avoid emotions, we block access to vital information about our lives. Emotions are our human alert systems that cue us to positive experiences, dangerous situations, or prompt us to act. Without emotions, we would struggle to make informed and good decisions. However, emotions can feel upending, overwhelming and destructive when we are in the height of it, which is why it becomes so important to understand how to regulate our emotion so we can harness the vital information or data embedded within our emotional lives.

The danger to avoiding emotions comes when it gets pushed outside of our awareness. When we lack awareness, we no longer retain control over that emotion. We can see this clearly when anger goes unacknowledged and suppressed. This anger doesn’t go away but it gets pushed outside of our awareness until some other situation triggers an explosion or rage. This can happen when you have a reaction that is disproportional to the trigger or situation that prompted it. For example, a parent screaming at their child because they put the toothpaste in the wrong place. It is possible that there is some other stressor or situation that was looking for an outlet and found an unwitting target in that child. The truth is that we all get busy or overwhelmed and struggle to be fully aware of our emotions. But chronic avoidance or suppression of emotion can wreak havoc on our relationships, our mental health and, some believe, even our physical health.

How can Asian Americans avoid comparing their suffering to their parents’ suffering?

In all honestly, I am not certain that we can entirely avoid comparing our struggles with that of our parents. In some ways, this awareness of our parents’ struggles helps engender a sense of gratitude and appreciation for all that our immigrant parents have been through. It helps us feel connected to our parents and we can see their struggles as a symbol of their love and hope for us. This is not inherently a bad thing.

What becomes problematic is that when we compare our struggles with our parents and as a result, silence and invalidate our own difficulties because “they were not as bad” as those of our parents. One thing I always encourage my clients to consider when they are stuck in this space is, “How is it helpful or useful to yourself or your parents to compare your suffering to theirs?” Often my clients will say, “Well, it doesn’t help at all.” In reality, comparing yourself to your parents does not erase, change or fix our parents’ struggles or change their past. Neither does it help you in the present moment or in your future to minimize or suppress your own struggles.

The most common emotion that can surface when we compare our suffering to that of our parents is guilt. We may feel guilt for not living our lives in alignment with our parents’ wishes or values. We may feel guilt for not pursuing career paths or partners that our parents approve of. We may feel guilt for setting boundaries in order to take care of ourselves and saying no. However, guilt is an emotion that helps us recognize when we have actually harmed others. However, sometimes we experience guilt even when we have done no harm to another. In instances in which we are making decisions that others may not agree with, we have to contend with the guilt of disappoint or letting others down while also realizing that if we bypass ourselves in order to make others happy it might cost us too much in the long run. If we allow our guilt or sense of indebtedness to our parents for their struggles rule our lives, we might actually create a war within ourselves and cause our mental health to suffer as well.

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Ashley Nestler, MSW

Ashley Nestler, MSW

Mental Health Specialist, Author, Empowerment Coach, and Bibliotherapist. Creator of The Ignite and Rise Academy and Releasing the Phoenix