How to

How to Talk to Asian Elders About Getting Mental Health Help

Many Asian Americans are questioning the state of mental health in their community in the wake of the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings.

Therapy can help with anger management, conflict resolution, and negotiation skills, according to Jenny Wang, Ph.D, who is a therapist and author of Permission to Come Home: Mental Health Recovery as Asian Americans.

“Does therapy prevent all violence? Probably not,” she said. “But therapy provides skills and support that can reduce them.”

Wang said violence happens when people can’t regulate their inner emotions. She said many AAPI immigrants become emotionally unavailable and suppress certain feelings in order to adjust to the challenges their new lives bring.

“That value of emotional stoicism — that idea that when we’re in emotional upheaval or upset, we try to hold back emotional dysregulation as best we can — they see as a strength,” Wang said.

Roots in a traumatic past

Before mastering domestic life in the United States, AAPI immigrants often mastered difficult lives in their home countries. According to Wang, swallowing bitterness — a Chinese term used to suppress feelings rather than acknowledging them — becomes a value.

Many Chinese fled starvation and political oppression. Vietnamese and Koreans suffered from war for years. Filipinos escaped the dictatorship. Cambodians fled the genocide. Many Japanese wore a stiff upper lip when they or their ancestors were sent to concentration camps. In all of these cases, Asian immigrants have been ravaged by colonialism, poverty, war or intergenerational trauma, Wang said.

Asian elders show stoicism when faced with inner turmoil, but when it sometimes goes unresolved [has] really harmful consequences.

— Jenny Wang, Ph.D

But appearances of stoicism belie reality.

“It’s actually a protective mechanism,” said Esther Lee, a therapist in the San Fernando Valley. “It has protected her for so long.”

The defense mechanism is an indicator of a lack of coping and communication skills, Lee said. It leads to pent-up resentment, anger, and frustration boiling just beneath the surface.

“Asian elders show stoicism when confronted with internal turmoil, but when it’s unmanaged,” says Wang, “it sometimes [has] really harmful consequences.”

Why it is important to understand Asian cultures

The defense mechanism is also rooted in the collectivist attitude of Asian cultures, Lee said. Because an individual’s worth and identity derives from the community and their families, elders tend to discount their own spiritual well-being in favor of the well-being of others.

However, as they get older, they sometimes can’t give as much to the community as they used to. Without being able to give to the fellowship, AAPI Elders may feel that their worth is limited. In order not to become a burden, they isolate themselves.

They are a very vulnerable demographic, they are often really isolated and alone.

— Sharon Kwon, therapist in Los Angeles

“They are a very vulnerable demographic, they are often very isolated and alone. Not all of them have relatives close by to check on them,” said Sharon Kwon, a Los Angeles therapist who has worked with the Koreatown Elderly Community.

Kwon said the problem is getting worse because of shame and the idea by many in the community that therapy is only for “crazy people.” And machismo could be another factor.

“I also think that Asian American cultures are inherently very patriarchal and collective, which is often the perfect recipe for domestic violence at home,” Kwon said.

Younger generations play an important role

Wang said younger generations could end the cycle of closed emotions, loneliness and despair.

“I strongly believe that if the younger generation – people in their 20s, 30s and 40s – are indeed striving for mental health and well-being, then perhaps that will be the catalyst for the older generation [seeking help]’ says Wang.

For her, therapy is more than just talking about feelings: it’s about arming our loved ones with the tools to navigate the home, the workplace, and every space in between. The exchange of personal therapy experiences is crucial.

how to start

To introduce therapy to elders, Wang suggests telling them about a time when you went to see a therapist about an issue, such as work or school. Then list how a therapist has helped.

“One of the things Asian elders worry about is that you kind of sit and vent your problems, but nothing changes,” Wang said.

So it’s important to show that it’s not just about venting, but about “developing a plan to change things in our lives for the better, or learning a skill, like communication or how to negotiate.” , she said.

Kwon added that therapists can help older people process difficult emotions, such as loneliness, guilt and feeling like a burden. “We can even link them to case management services that actually help you with more day-to-day things,” she said.

Kwon is part of the Yellow Chair Collective – a group of Asian-American therapists. According to their website, Asian American therapists can help older people by knowing the ins and outs of a culture and by being open-minded and curious about their viewpoints.

Asian-American therapists have a responsibility to address cultural barriers, said April Tith, a Long Beach therapist. “Cultural humility is built into their practice. “Finding clinicians who prioritize cultural sensitivity and inclusion can make that happen [finding a therapist] more successful,” said Tith.

Professional therapy isn’t always accessible and it’s not always appropriate for everyone, Kwon said. In these cases, she suggested churches and temples as great alternatives because they offer fellowship and support. “Churches and pastors were the original therapists,” she said.

“What I love about therapy is that it helps create a sense of personal release,” Lee said. “Collective liberation can only happen when personal liberation and peace are achieved.”

Resources for the AAPI community

Additional Resources

All elders are eligible for Medicare and can access the LA County Department of Mental Health website. There they can find mental health providers in their local community.

Another resource featuring Asian therapists who are culturally sensitive, the Yellow Chair collective offers a nonprofit service called ENTWINE that provides low-cost mental health services and case management.

Resources for everyone in crisis

Ask for help

    • The crisis text line, text “HOME” (741-741) to reach a trained crisis advisor.
  • When you need immediate help

    • Find 5 action steps to help someone who may be suicidal from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

How to help the victims families of Monterey Park

  • GoFundMe has set up a special fundraising page to support mass shooting survivors and families. The list includes:

  • GoFundMe says these funds are verified, which means their team makes sure the donations are used as advertised. You can view the full list here.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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