By Brandon Hadi
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
Suicide. A chilling word, yet meaningless until it affects you directly. Suicide became meaningful for me when a close friend and fraternity brother, Jesse, could no longer cope with his depression, and ended his life.
I recall the hurtful responses from others. “Suicide is for cowards” and “His soul will never be at peace. He’s going to hell.”
The shockwaves were numbing. Anger, regret, and guilt reverberated all around the walls of my skull.
We tried to piece together why Jesse would kill himself.
It completely blindsided all of us. Jesse was the cool, popular guy we all looked up to. He was social and befriended nearly anyone with ease. He was selfless, always there for you when you needed somebody. How could someone who appeared so happy on the outside be dealing with so much turmoil on the inside?
Unlike Jesse, none of us were there for him when he needed us most. If only I made a greater effort to check up on him. If only I’d asked him how he really felt. If only I looked a little closer…would I have seen the hurt inside? These “if only” statements ravaged the minds of our fraternity members for weeks. The guilt was rampant.
A group therapy session through the University of Washington’s counseling center did little to help. Going into the session, we thought that this would be your stereotypical “Alcoholics Anonymous”-like grief group. We thought we’d be asked about our feelings, our responses, and what to do next. Instead, our session was occupied by 55 minutes of “None of you should feel guilty for what happened.” The twelve of us were given only the remaining 5 minutes to share our thoughts.
The counselor was right, of course, but the lack of cultural understanding in the therapy made her reassurances feel trivial. We felt lost and misunderstood. Some of us felt resentment. That was our first and last therapy session.
Sadly, we were the statistic. Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs) are the least likely to seek mental health treatment and the most likely to drop out. The API culture that we have immense pride and joy in is the same culture that creates stigma around mental health. We learn that sharing our struggles will only bring embarrassment to our families. We fear being a burden to others.
I decided to make a change on campus and in our community.
I had a simple idea, which was to create an event to address the need for culturally competent mental health interventions. This event would shed light on an issue that affects our community, while encouraging us to share our narratives of trauma, pain, and hope in a safe space. Five of us, students and alumni, established a committee dedicated to creating this.
We arrived at “How Are You Doing Today?” as our event title, a question we are so used to hearing, yet rarely answer truthfully. Perhaps we don’t have the time, or perhaps we don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable.
After eight months of planning, we held our event on Feb. 20, 2016. With a turnout of over 150 students and community members, our event was more powerful and wide reaching than we had imagined. By holding workshops on identity, gender, sexuality, intergenerational trauma, religion, spirituality, and self-care in relation to API cultures and mental health, attendees learned how to frame their story within a larger context.
We received overwhelmingly positive reviews, especially for the small-group discussions. Students shared their personal stories and listened to each other’s struggles without judgment. They learned that sharing really is healing.
Our work is just beginning. As members of the API community, we must take responsibility. We will not let cultural stigma dictate our mental wellbeing. We can transform narratives of trauma and pain into ones of resilience and strength. Even when faced with adversity, beauty can arise.