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Talk gives faith leaders reasons for tending to the mental health of their Asian American congregations

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Finn via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — More than 750 people were present online Monday for the day-long Mental Health and Asian Americans Conference put on by the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dr. Josephine Kim, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, licensed mental health counselor and the founder of the organization Mustard Seed Generation, led off with an hour-long talk titled “Mental Health in Asian American Communities: Unpacking External and Internal Factors that Keep Asian Americans Vulnerable.”

Kim began by rhetorically asking the faith leaders present whey they should care about mental health. The obvious answer is that it’s affecting significant amounts of the people in their congregation or worshiping community:

  • According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 10 young people experience periods of major depression.
  • One in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.
  • One in five youth ages 13-18 will have a serious mental health challenge.
  • Forty million college students and young adults live with a mental illness or significant mental health issue.
  • More than 4 in 10 people 65 and older say they feel lonely on a regular basis.
  • Since the pandemic began almost two years ago, 55% of adults report having “little interest in taking pleasure in doing things,” Kim said. “None of us are immune from this.”

Asian Americans are in a “double bind,” Kim said, when they’re viewed stereotypically as both “perpetual foreigner” and “model minority.”

“We have to think about the forces that push us and keep us vulnerable,” Kim said. “Mental health is where we sit at the intersection between those two things.”

Leaders of faith communities ought to be increasing literacy rates both in matters of race and mental health, Kim said, focusing on “how those factors impact those we are preaching to every week.”

Although statistically the rates of depression and anxiety are up among Asian Americans and others during the pandemic, “as a church we need to understand we may not have people falling apart before our eyes,” Kim said. Students may be bringing home A+ report cards, “but in our community, grades are not necessarily a marker of their well-being.”

Dr. Josephine Kim

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, “we have survived a whole lot, and kudos to you,” Kim told the gathered faith leaders. “This is where God’s grace is.”

But keep in mind that if 100 people show up for worship on Sunday, 26 of them will be suffering from a diagnosable mental illness or will this year. “We aren’t above it,” Kim said, “just because we’re tethered to Christ.”

“God created us as emotional and social beings,” Kim said, reminding the audience of Jesus’ response in Mark 12:30 to the scribe who asked him which commandment is the most important. Jesus’ reply says a lot about who we’re created to be and in whose image we’re made, according to Kim: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

“The fact that we have emotions is a sign of how emotive God is,” Kim said. “When socially and emotionally we are not doing well, the other parts often fall apart. All the pieces are interlinked.”

In the U.S., nearly 80% of Korean Americans belong to a Protestant church. Rather than seeking a therapist because of a mental health challenge, “they come to you, like it or not,” Kim said to church leaders in attendance.

What’s the faith leader to say? They might start with, “I want to accompany you in the process, but I also want to connect you with someone with training to give you that support,” Kim suggested, adding this possible line: “We can pray and look into God’s Word.”

“That’s the holistic approach we need to get people healthy again,” Kim said.

Faith leaders can see themselves as first responders, Kim said, when they know the signs, learn the actions and are a lifeline to those who are seeking help.

“We need to be familiar with what youth and the elderly are going through,” Kim said — not to treat them, “but to recognize the symptoms and the warning signs.” Once that’s established, it’s appropriate to ask, “Can I accompany you as we start the process?”

Just as important as mental health literacy is racial and cultural literacy, Kim said.

“As faith leaders, we must understand cultural manifestations,” Kim said. “You may hear about lack of appetite, the inability to sleep or a struggle with anxiety. Acculturation, fitting in, the racism we are experiencing — all of that impacts mental health.”

“There are plenty of people on this side of heaven who are struggling,” Kim said. “Churches need to be willing and able to have therapeutic conversations that aren’t necessarily therapeutic. We can destigmatize mental health issues from the pulpit because there is lots of power in that pulpit.”

It might be as simple as the faith leader asking a small group at a meeting or Bible study, “Can we do a quick mental health check? How’s your weather? Stormy? Peaceful?”

One line Kim uses is, “It was hard for me to get out of bed this morning. Anyone else feeling this way?”

There is beauty and power in the shared experience and this vulnerability we share,” Kim said, adding, “When you don’t take care of yourself, you are in no position to help others.”

Kim displayed photos of a method for repairing broken pottery by lining the cracks with gold or silver, a process that “celebrates the broken places. I don’t know of a more powerful metaphor for us,” Kim said. “On this side of heaven, we are broken … We celebrate the broken places because that’s where all these identities align.”

In a question-and-answer session following the talk, Kim said many Asian American congregations are becoming more open about helping with mental health challenges, in part because they’re being populated with younger members and friends “who are much more open to mental health issues. They see the prevalence and they are more open to seeking help.”

Kim said conversation-starters such as the one about having difficulty sleeping the night before can “open up the floodgates. You admit it and are vulnerable for a purpose, for the benefit others and not yourself. That almost always ends up being a therapeutic conversation without therapy.”

When asked how faith leaders can respond to the advice sometimes offered to people with mental health concerns — “just go to God and pray” — Kim said people know they must see their doctor about their broken arm, lest it heals without medical attention “in a way that’s an impediment to your life. That’s what happens when you don’t seek help. To get that arm refunctioning again, they’d have to rebreak it … That’s a horrible but necessary process.”

“Mental health treatment sometimes is that painful,” Kim said. “It’s asking you to reopen wounds, but it’s a necessary evil to getting ourselves functioning again.”

Parents do well, Kim said, to model for their children “what it looks like to take care of our mental health.” Do deep-breathing with your child or agree to go to separate spaces “and in 10 minutes we will do a reset,” Kim said.

As an Asian American woman, “I was raised to do everything for the benefit of others,” Kim said. “I had to wrestle with that when all these pressures began to manifest themselves physically. I became ill to the point that I really couldn’t do anything. I took it as a God sign. If I am going to be of service to others, I need to be at my best condition, and I can’t be at my best condition without taking care of myself.”

Asked about helping Asian American who have experienced spiritual abuse in the church, Kim acknowledged, “That’s a tough one. A way to hurt someone twice is to pretend it didn’t happen.” One way to bring about healing, Kim said, is “a great apology coming from the right place. There’s nothing more beautiful than that person doing everything in their power to repair that harm … We as the body of Christ must do all we can to repair that harm, making continued efforts to repair the harm.”

Look for Kim’s talk to be posted shortly on the YouTube site of the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.


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