By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The most recent Healthy Youth Survey, done in part by Washington’s Department of Health, found that, in winter 2021, 45% of Washington’s 12th graders felt sad or hopeless. If you dive into the numbers, it gets more alarming. 69% of 10th graders reported they were nervous or anxious, over half have not been able to stop worrying, 18% had planned suicide, 8% had tried it, and 15% said they had no one to turn to (askhys.net). As students across the state prepare to go back to school, it is important to address challenges particular to this transitional time between full-blown pandemic and the new normal, when kids and adults alike still harbor trauma.
Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS) and Comcast have partnered in advocating for mental health and wellness in our communities, a large piece of which has to do with communication. During the pandemic, that meant doing so digitally.
“Many of our communities are still far behind on digital literacy,” said Michael Byun, executive director of ACRS. “Digital literacy for them is dialing and using the telephone to get connected, so certainly during this time, there was this real unraveling—and understanding—about how much of a gap many of our community folks were confronting.” ACRS was quick to pivot at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns and so, while there was much that was disturbing about this time, Byun believed there was also much that was transforming.
“There have been moments of wonderful solutions, people acting quickly, communities acting quickly, families—with their resilience—acting quickly to get their older adults…figuring out how to get on Zoom so that they could attend Cloud Bamboo.”
In an ACRS virtual “Lunch and Learn,” entitled “Wellness in a Digital World,” on Aug. 22, with Comcast and Technology Access Foundation (TAF), panelists shared their efforts to provide underserved communities the help they need, be it mental health services or technology.
Originally scheduled in May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, the talk was postponed out of respect for the victims of the mass shooting in Texas. As ACRS Development Director Martha Reyes announced then, “We want to prioritize your personal space and wellness and instead of pressing forward.” This act demonstrates an increasing understanding among certain organizations that taking time to sit with and acknowledge people’s mental and emotional state is vital. As it happened, the moving of the event to a few days before school starts, was equally appropriate.
The session kicked off with an informative video about a new digital literacy lab at ACRS, called The Lift Zone, sponsored by Comcast.
“It’s going to enable us to take the digital literacy class to a new level,” ACRS staff commented. “This Lift Zone lab is kind of a microcosm of everything we’re trying to achieve in digital equity.” Why is digital equity and digital access important? It’s fundamentally about connection and relationships, and that’s why it’s inseparable from mental health. For youth, using a digital form of communication might be the best or only way to talk with them.
“Being more open to that form of engagement with youth is very important,” said ACRS Youth Development Director Leslie Stone. “For example, for our QOLOR program (an LGBTQ youth program), our youth were sharing with us that they want to communicate on a certain platform where they feel that their identity is protected because a lot of our youth aren’t outed with their families…asking our youth what do they want, what do they need…listening to them, and being innovative.” Stone added, “It is really challenging to reach them right now.”
Digital access is one step. The next step is feeling comfortable enough to seek help in the first place. When it comes to mental health, a stigma remains.
“One of the biggest challenges…not just for youth but for a lot of people, is being…willing to say, yes, I would like to talk to someone,” said Dillon Nishimoto, ACRS Youth Clinical Manager. “At ACRS, we recognize that a lot of us are coming from more interdependent communities and that’s a strength that we try to build on, that we are all doing this together…it can feel scary to share some of that vulnerability…it does require a little bit of a leap of faith.”
Finding support is crucial not only for the communities that organizations serve, but also within the organizations themselves, where staff, as Byun pointed out, are experiencing “second hand trauma.”
TAF Executive Director of Operations Sherry Williams has made it a requirement for employees to meet with her one-on-one. She reminds staff (and all of us) that we have a right to mental health days and that we should focus on self-care and staying connected.
“When it all falls down, if you don’t have relationships, you don’t have anything.” At the beginning of the pandemic, Williams shared that “the first thing that needed to happen was checking in and making sure people were okay.” She and her staff reached out to each other and students, as well as parents, “to make sure…their wellbeing and their mental health was okay.”
Lockdowns during the pandemic created a developmental interruption amongst kids.
“There’s been a significant social delay that happened with every single age group, that there’s two-years-plus of really key socialization, that we’ve had to learn how to figure out,” said Nishimoto. The crucial thing about ACRS and TAF is they specialize in BIPOC communities. TAF supports K-12 students, and teachers, and works to ensure that students see teachers that look like them.
“We know that kids do better when they have people that look like them teaching them, who can understand who they are, where they come from, and what their culture is.” ACRS, too, provides that cultural piece, be it through culturally specific meals or classes. “Our agency and our department has multiple languages and cultural backgrounds,” shared Nishimoto. “A lot of young people and families prefer to work with someone they can connect with on that level.”
At the end of the luncheon, parents asked how to best serve their children. One participant shared that her college-aged daughter, who experienced a mental breakdown, was put into a “psych ward” by the university. This action violated several key takeaways from the session, such as that one shouldn’t be forced into a mental health option one isn’t ready for, and that a safe environment must first be present in order for healing to happen.
“They just wanted to give her medication, counseling, they couldn’t understand what my point was. I felt like I didn’t have a say,” this mother said. The family took their daughter out and took her home. “I come from a Korean background. We’re just going to love on her…and give her this safe space to grow.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.