At a recent NAMI family support group via Zoom, attendees were heard sharing:
“How can I help my loved one in a state psychiatric hospital feel better when no one was allowed to visit her?”
“I sent my son to the ER because of his suicide risks, but the hospital was not communicating with me. Thank God for this group where I learned how to advocate for him.”
“What will happen to our adult child with such a debilitating illness when we are both gone?”
Mental illness does not discriminate based on ethnicity or race. That quoted group of Asian American families needed the same messages as much as any other groups do: You are not alone. There is hope.
The Asian American Community and Mental Illness
May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. As the fastest growing foreign-born population in the U.S., the estimated number of Asian American residents in 2018 was 22.6 million. According to the 2018 American Community Survey, Chinese, Asian Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean people are the top-five largest Asian communities in the country.
Asian Americans have a 14.7% annual prevalence of mental illness among U.S. adults, yet only a quarter of those individuals seek treatment.
Many Asian American families seek help out of desperation, usually upon circumstances such as:
- Involuntary commitment
- Repeated job losses
- Court-ordered psychosocial or psychiatric evaluations
- Suicide attempts
Many more struggle in silence because of stigma, lack of awareness and systemic barriers.
Crucial and Creative Efforts in Raising Awareness
In the past two decades, an increasing number of Asian American social organizations and academic groups have made unique and encouraging efforts in raising awareness about mental health and dispelling stigma. NAMI state organizations and local affiliates in California, New Jersey, New York and Texas have developed teams and programs reaching out to their local Asian immigrant communities.
In 2001, NAMI New Jersey developed its first multicultural program for South Asian immigrant families: South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey (SAMHAJ). The program received the NAMI National Multicultural Award the next year, and became the model for the other sister programs that followed, including Chinese American Mental Health Outreach Program (CAMHOP) which has served the state’s Chinese American families since 2003.
Almost two decades later, these two programs have grown in strength and reach, with teams of trained individuals with lived experience and their family members serving their own peers across the state. The recipe for these programs’ sustained success is a combination of:
- Strong buy-in of the board
- Unwavering support from the management team
- State funding
- Collaborations with community partners
- Persistent fundraising efforts
- Successful recruitment and training of volunteers, including families, individuals in recovery, interns, concerned community members and providers
More NAMI Affiliates Prioritizing Inclusion
According to the 2017 Census Bureau population estimate, the following states had the largest Asian American populations: California, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Virginia, Hawaii and Massachusetts. NAMI state organizations and local affiliates are now closer than ever to achieving programming that reflects the racial composition of their state populations, thanks to NAMI’s focus on building diversity and inclusiveness when redesigning and delivering the signature programs.
NAMI Family & Friends, a free 90-minute or four-hour seminar, is the first signature program to have its e-book available in minority languages, three of which are Asian languages (Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese).
In early 2020, NAMI started a year-long project translating its most popular educational program, NAMI Family-to-Family, into the Chinese language with cultural adaptations, thanks to a designated private donation. A Spanish-language version of NAMI Family-to-Family, De Familia a Familia de NAMI, is available in a limited number of states. After Spanish, Chinese was the most widely spoken non-English language in the country. The evidence-based program has been taught in Chinese since 2014 in California, New Jersey and Texas.
NAMI In Our Own Voice, a stigma-busting presentation, provides a model that facilitates highly individualized accounts of lived experience of mental health conditions. The newly produced video that accompanies the presentation features program leaders from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, which is instrumental in helping diverse audience groups relate to the experiences shared by advocates.
We are hopeful that, with NAMI’s vision and efforts in diversity and inclusion, more affiliates will become empowered and equipped to offer signature programs to their diverse communities.
Just as no one can choose their race or ethnicity at birth, we do not choose to be affected by any illness. With an appreciation of the circumstances that make us all unique, we can always learn to serve each other with love that makes us one.
Maggie Luo has been NAMI NJ’s Chinese American Mental Health Outreach Program Founder and Coordinator since 2003, and currently NAMI NJ’s Associate Director in communication and technology. Maggie works with a dedicated team of CAMHOP volunteers to cultivate grassroots awareness on mental health issues, plant community self-help groups around NJ, help immigrant families navigate the mental health system, and promote cultural competence among mainstream agencies. She received her master’s degree in communications with a health focus from Rutgers University. Maggie is a member of the Rutgers Christian Community Church in New Jersey where she has served as a special needs adult Sunday School teacher for the past decade.