Embracing mental health for Asian Americans

It’s taken time for the Rev. Samuel Son to process emotions resulting from last week’s online conference

by the Rev. Samuel Son for Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Recently, I attended an online conference titled, “Mental Health and Asian Americans: Context and Strategies for Faith Leaders” hosted by the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary. I am still processing my emotions. If it was a physical conference, I would have invited you to a beer to process it together. Writing this blog is my virtual invitation. I share what I’ve heard and felt — no claim to objectivity — hoping that there’s resonance here, creating space for your own voice.

  • Just to have a conference with the words “Asian American Christians” and “mental health” in the same line was like pulling out the planks from a boarded window and letting light and air in. The monster we feared in the dark didn’t materialize. The room’s a mess and there’s a lot of work to do, but now we know what to do. Fear does not paralyze us.
  • Asian Americans experience higher rates of mental distress (44%) and serious mental illness (6%) but have some of the lowest rates of treatment for mental health issues. Of course, because for a long time, I never saw myself as having mental health issues. What causes this gap between the reality of mental health issues for Asian Americans and the denial of that reality?
  • Christianity. Asian Americans got their theology from American missionaries whose faith was shaped in the controversy of scriptural authority. A firm commitment to inerrancy of Scripture makes us suspicious of anything secular, meaning anything that doesn’t derive authority explicitly from Scripture. History banished revelation, philosophy banished God and psychology banished the soul. We learned to distrust psychology. I was trained to ask about every discipline, “Is it biblical?” over “Is it true?” From a biblical perspective, there is no mental health. Only sin and possession. I’ve witnessed pastors trying to exorcise demons from troubled teens.
  • The Confucian culture, and its varied forms that are the substrata of many Asian cultures, preach the relational nature of our identities. In Korean churches, I am introduced as the child of Rev. Young-Goo Son. My relationships tell others and myself who I am. With relationships come responsibility. My responsibility tells me to think about how my actions reflect on my family’s name. The pastor prioritizes his/her responsibility to the church over his/her need for care. This prioritization easily transmutes into subsumption until the self is completely erased. The self is less important than the PR of the church. I can’t admit mental health issues because it will stigmatize my family. Honor over health.
  • Asian-American. This hyphenated label says that my Asian identity is shaped/distorted by American racism. I never thought about the shape of my eyes until I came to America as a seven-year-old and kids made fun of me by stretching their eyes. Two racist ideologies imposed their definition/distortion on me: 1-perpetual foreigner and 2-model minority. The perpetual foreigner says, “I don’t belong here. I can never be good enough.” The model minority says, “You have it good. Why are you complaining?” I supposedly have the privileges of being white, but I am not white. I am, as Dr. Josephine Kim says, “off-white.” These two voices become my conflicted inner voice that says, “Yeah, you have wounds of racism, but they are not real wounds, not as bad as others.” Ironically, trying to avoid Oppression Olympics, I end up playing the game, minimizing my own experiences because they don’t compare to others’ suffering. A comic — they have been my prophets lately — says hungry people in another country don’t make my hunger any lesser. The comparative magnitude of another person’s trauma doesn’t lessen the impact of my trauma. A wound is a wound, and even a paper cut can lead to infection.
  • Internalized racism. A Palestinian comedian — my prophets as I have said — jokes that when a white person shoots people, it’s mental health, but when a brown person shoots, it’s terrorism (This was the narrative of the Atlanta shootings). He goes on, reflecting on the history of his people, “You don’t think living in occupied land, experiencing bombing as a kid, losing parents doesn’t lead to mental health issues?” The belief is that a white person is inherently good, so if he does something terrible, it’s not an issue of who he is, but what happened to him, i.e., mental health. But people of color are inherently bad, so if he does something terrible, then it’s not an issue of what happened to him but who he is. I bought that lie! So I didn’t want to admit any problem, because rather than seeing the problem as something that happened to me, I felt I was admitting to something wrong with me. I didn’t fail. I was a failure. I didn’t fall sick. I was a sick person.

The Rev. Samuel Son, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s manager for Diversity and Reconciliation, preached during a worship service last summer during Synod School, which is put on each year by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. (Screenshot)

Here’s a liberating thought: Seeking mental health help is an antiracist work, because I am recognizing my full humanity and saying the trauma isn’t my core identity.

Three personal strategies I found useful right away.

  • The conflict between the individual and the communal is a false binary. This false binary perpetuates itself by accusing the act of keeping boundaries as a selfish act. Attention to self as selfishness sets up communal needs as the opposite, i.e., that the act of not caring for self is self-sacrifice. Kim says that protecting my boundary is a way to protect other people’s boundaries. In my backyard, if I’m not aware of my property line and plant my tomatoes where maximum sunlight makes it through the trees, I could be “invading” my neighbor’s soil. Knowing my boundaries is a way to protect other people’s boundaries. It’s my communal responsibility to know when to say no. The phrase “hurt people hurt people” was repeated often in the conference. It’s another way of saying if you don’t know how to say no, then you won’t honor it when other people say “no.”
  • Mental health is an act of discipleship. In Luke 10:27 we are called to “love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind.” This recognizes the intersection of all these parts of ourselves by recognizing the validity of each domain. Each domain requires attention. Our mind is not just our intellect, but our mental state. Mental health care is discipleship. That God would want us to love God with all our minds means God cares for what we do with our minds. God pays attention to our mental health.
  • Mental health care should be dailyThe most important element of bodily care is our daily attention to it. Sure, we make doctor and hospital visits. We need extended days of recuperation after surgery. But one way to avoid those long-term care events is to make sure we eat right and exercise daily. We need professionals and marked-off time and space for our mental health. But it should also happen as regularly as our meals: dealing with stresses as they happen rather than holding them until they explode in violent ways. We pray for our spirit. We eat for our body. So, what do we do today for our minds?

I am curious: What is your daily mental health care? I think mental health care at one level is self-care, letting our mind simply be rather than giving itself as a tool to accomplish another’s agenda. What gives you joy today?

The Rev. Samuel Son is manager for Diversity and Reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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