By Brandon Hadi
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Everyone has a story. Everyone has a reason for their behavior, whether you know it or not.” — Luke Tang
You’re seated in a small noodle shop in a college town. It seats 30. The noodle shop quickly fills up, but you were lucky to have been seated already. As you peer at the growing line near the door, you wonder what’s running through the minds of these young people. What are their dreams and aspirations? Where do they call home? What’s their story?
“For nearly 15 of these soon-to-be changemakers, nonprofit founders, and community leaders, their story includes a mental health crisis. Did you expect 15? This is the reality of today’s youth — nearly half of college-aged students had a diagnosable mental health crisis.”
Similar statistics underscore the mental health crisis happening not only on college campuses, but across various communities and age groups in the United States. There is a growing concern, and with such, a growing movement which aims to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health.
Within this movement, another, lesser known cause is also gaining traction.
Asian and Pacific Islander (API) mental health has become a topic for discussion, as startling statistics illuminate the scale of mental health issues within our communities. Although these statistics shed light on an invisible issue, personal narratives and storytelling pull us into experiences familiar to us all.
This includes highly demanding family expectations to achieve and perform with perfection. Overwhelming stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and helplessness. Stigma. No one to turn to. One young Asian American man who takes matters into his own hands. Suicide. A bright light, extinguished too soon.
Looking for Luke shares the story of Luke Tang, a 19-year-old Asian American who committed suicide in 2015, through the lens of those left behind. In the short film, Luke’s parents, Wendell and Christina, seek to understand what Luke was feeling. As they discuss with his close friends and explore his journals, Luke’s parents confront a truth that few Asian and Asian American parents in the United States ever acknowledge — depression is real, it is an illness, and it can be deadly.
The stigma in Asian and Asian American communities around mental health is well-known, stemming heavily from the culture we find incredible strength and unity in. Valuing group harmony and relationships, we shun individual weaknesses that reflect poorly upon our parents, our families. Coupled with expectations to be perfect or at least extremely accomplished, and perpetuated by the myth of being the “model minority,” it comes as little surprise that today’s Asian American youth hide their stress, develop insomnia, and turn to substances, instead of vocalizing what’s really going on.
Asian American youth are not alone in these feelings, however. Active Minds reports that over 80 percent of college students feel overwhelmed. What’s more, suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 and 34.
Dr. Gene Beresin and Dr. Juliana Chen, psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and executive producers of Looking for Luke, believe the film will go a long way in raising awareness and reducing the stigma around mental health, specifically in Asian and Asian American communities. They have already hosted screenings of the film on various college campuses on the East Coast, receiving feedback that the film has changed parents’ ideas about youth mental health. At the end of the screenings, the psychiatrists joined other panelists to host frank discussions.
“These screenings give us the opportunity to interact with parents and families in ways that we aren’t always available to do otherwise. These conversations provide education on youth mental health, how to identify symptoms of overwhelming stress and depression, so that parents can feel equipped and prepared,” shares Chen.
Honest conversations that force both parents and youth to be vulnerable are important for youth to understand, that not feeling okay is, in fact, okay. After all, one in four adults lives with a diagnosable mental health disorder, despite the culture of shaming vulnerability and the stigma around mental health that plagues our society.
Yet these conversations alone will not prevent future tragedies from happening again. Colleges and universities are also responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of their students, and Beresin outlines steps that can be taken to make positive changes on campus.
First, everyone needs to know where to go and what to do if you are worried about someone. This means a centralized resource for students to reference in times of need, whether that involves building a website or an app. College administrations should also consider educational programs that raise awareness around stress and coping, expand the capacity of university counselling centers, and actively promote student wellbeing. This includes increased funding for mental health resources, adopting culturally competent mental health programs, and endorsing programs that promote self-expression, such as the arts, yoga, and meditation.
Beresin also maintains that while college administrators need to take action, so can students. Peer groups hold high promise for students to share mutual experiences of stress and trauma, coming to solutions on their own. These peer groups combat a common feeling found among college students — that they are alone in feeling overwhelmed and isolated. Creating peer groups and hosting honest conversations eases these feelings of isolation.
There is hope. Students at the University of Washington have formed a peer group called API Cares, dedicated to raising awareness and reducing the stigma around API mental health, particularly during this political era and the inevitable stress that accompanies minority college students. Organizations such as Active Minds and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) are changing the conversation by empowering youth to confront the pressures that challenge their daily lives.
Local organizations like Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS) and International Community Health Services (ICHS) provide culturally competent care, specifically for communities of color.
If you are interested in watching Looking for Luke, contact the filmmakers at lookingforlukefilm.com and firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a screening in your community. The producers sad the film will eventually be available online sometime in 2018.
If you or someone you know requires immediate help, please call 911.
National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255
King County Crisis Line: 206-461-3222
Teen Hotline: 866-833-6546
ACRS: 206-695-7511 acrs.org
ICHS: 206-788-3700 ichs.com
Brandon can be reached at email@example.com.