Ninez Ponce, left, Meera Varma, center, and Angoori Rana, right, are advocates for mental health care and awareness, particularly in Asian American Pacific Islander communities. (Photos courtesy of Ninez Ponce, Meera Varma and Angoori Rana)


Young Asian Americans work to destigmatize mental health through advocacy

<a href="" target="_self">Sriya Sai Pushpa Datla</a>

Sriya Sai Pushpa Datla

November 10, 2023
Angoori Rana wanted her parents to understand two things: that her brother was struggling and that mental illness is not a myth. 

For the 25-year-old’s parents, migrating to the United States presented cultural and linguistic barriers, and addressing any mental health struggles was the least of their concerns.

“Assimilating hasn’t always been easy, especially when it comes to things like mental health,” Rana said.

Although federal data has suggested about 10% of Asian Americans experience mental health issues, a 2021 survey by the Asian American Psychological Association found the number to be closer to 40%.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this percentage even more with an increase in anti-Asian American hate crimes. 

In 2020, the California Health Interview Survey found that Asian hate crimes had affected about 1.5 million Asian Americans.

“What was most shocking is that 27% said that they had witnessed another Asian American Pacific Islander experiencing a hate incident,” said Ninez Ponce, chair of the UCLA’s Department of Health Policy and Management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “These hate incidents are because of xenophobia and because people see Asians as different from themselves.”

When people immigrate to America, they deal with the stress of assimilating into a new country and learning a new language. On top of adjusting to a new lifestyle, the stress of enduring racism and xenophobia can lead to an increase in mental illnesses, Ponce said.

Although the stigma around mental health is different among cultures, Ponce said one similarity is many people are afraid to seek help leading to a greater societal cost.

Dr. Joyce Javier, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, uses her community-partnered participatory research to destigmatize mental health in the Filipino American community and works to increase mental health literacy among youth.

“Mental health means something different for everyone. There is no set textbook definition that tells you what it exactly means,” Javier said. “Creating a shared definition of adolescent mental health is what really matters.”

For Rana, it was important for her family to have a shared definition of mental health. As a Punjabi, her family are Rajputs, she said, which is a member of the caste claiming Kshatriya descent. Rana said her family’s descent is known for their reputation as being the warriors in the Indian caste system. 

Since warriors are known for their toughness, Rana said being Rajput has definitely influenced her family and her ethnic community’s views on mental health.

“I think there is a lot of pressure for Rajputs and people of especially the Punjabi background to feel this need to be super strong,” Rana said. “I think this is really interesting because mental health issues are viewed as a weakness and a shame to the family.” 

Not having discussions about mental health, Rana grew up without self-care tips. While working vigorously hard to reach her academic potential in high school, burnout became the standard.

“Mental health is super taboo in our Indian community. No one talks about it. And I think that is largely the problem,” Rana said.

Sarah Georgie, a sophomore biology major at UCLA, said based on her experiences, she’s noticed that many Asian Americans only consider physical health to be important.

“Socio-emotional well-being, how we process our emotions, and how we respond to what’s going on in our environment is not taken as seriously as physical health is,” Georgie said.

From students to nonprofit organizations, advocates strive to make a lasting impression in the way mental health is cared for, talked about and valued.

Meera Varma, a mental health activist and UCLA graduate student, is one of the many advocates that are policy-driven. She said creating policies surrounding mental health is important to serve our generation and future ones.

Varma was invited to MTV’s first Mental Health Youth Action Forum and spoke to President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Selena Gomez and the Surgeon General. 

As suicide is a leading cause of death for her age group, she said bringing awareness to suicide prevention at the Forum was a changing moment in history.

“It was just very empowering to have all of these White House officials listen to youth, and actually have open minds and open hearts when we were talking about mental health,” Varma said. “It was a call to action across all generations.”

Varma said her message for anyone who is struggling is that you are valued.

“Just know that I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it. It does get better,” Varma said. “Know that there is a purpose for you. Even if you don’t know it yet, focusing on your mental health should always be a priority.”

One way to improve mental health is to create a strong social support system. Kelly Madden, Active Minds Manager of Chapter Mobilization, said it’s necessary for students to build their support system with their peers and campus faculty.

“It’s really about coalition building — how to come together as a group, how to research mental health in order to hand that research to a principal or a teacher at your school to build interest,” Madden said. “That’s really where we’ve taken our action-oriented programs and support for students.”

Madden said the more people there are centering around an issue, the more important mental health becomes.

Varma said she didn’t feel comfortable talking about her mental health to some of her relatives because they didn’t encourage Varma to talk about her struggles with depression.

“When I was 14, I just realized there was a huge stigma around [mental health], especially being an Indian. So I just wanted to start those validating and open conversations around mental health that I didn’t grow up having,” Varma said.

Georgie said that many AAPI individuals do not seek out care because it’s hard for them to recognize that they’re struggling with mental health.

“People don’t talk about it so they don’t recognize it and seek support. Many don’t realize that it’s not just a ‘me’ problem and there are others who feel the same way,” Georgie said.

For Rana, having uncomfortable conversations with her parents about the reality of mental health has been a big help to their family, she said.

“Just being able to talk about mental health in a safe space with only my parents and [myself] has made a difference,” Rana said.

Rana and Varma said they want others who are facing mental health crises to know they are not alone.

“What you’re going through is valid and is real,” Varma said. “Sometimes, it’s more about the people in your life that do care about you, and that are willing to understand.”

When having difficult mental health conversations with family members, Varma said if a relationship is not serving you, then you shouldn’t pursue it.

“Pursue people that do support you, that do validate you and that make you feel like your struggles are real and that want to help you get better,” Varma said.