“I’m 63 years old. I’m looking forward to my retirement in 3 to 5 years. If the pandemic is still ongoing, then what will I have to look forward to?”
These are the thoughts that bombarded Olga Sarabia, an Asian American insurance underwriter living in New York City. Aside from the devastating effects on physical health, the Coronavirus has also amplified anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. A survey fielded by AARP Foundation in late August found that more than half of American adults experienced increased anxiety levels due to COVID-19, yet only 11% turned to medical professionals for help.
This problem cuts across all races and minority groups, but Asian Americans seem to be most susceptible.
“I’m very concerned about the mental wellbeing and health of older Asian Americans right now, as they’re coping with multiple sources of stress including the pandemic, social isolation, and unemployment”, said Dr. Usha Tummala-Narra, a licensed clinical psychologist.
Our Asian American identities are built around interconnecting threads of race, ethnicity, and religion, according to Dr. Tummala-Narra. “These connections form how we feel about ourselves and our relation to the world. This is why anti-Asian racism during this pandemic has caused tremendous levels of stress.”
While Olga worried about her retirement, 32-year-old Pierre Dizon struggled with his fears of contracting the virus.
“I was just worried about getting sick all the time. In my mind, I was making up these fake symptoms. Like, oh my gosh, my heart is pounding. Maybe there’s something wrong with me,” he shared. A virtual consultation with a therapist confirmed that he was dealing with anxiety.
“I’ve probably been anxious a lot in my life. But even when I identified it, I just refused [to confront it],” he admitted.
Studies show that Asian Americans — the fastest-growing minority population — are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white people. Aside from the cultural stigma, unaffordable treatment options and language barriers further complicate these circumstances.
Through the years, a number of mental health initiatives have been established to provide culturally-competent care to Asian Americans such as Project Liberty, a counseling program launched after the 9/11 tragedy. However, this solution is not so straightforward. For instance, while the September 11th Fund offered individuals up to USD 3,000 for reimbursement of mental health services, there were no Asian-language speaking staff on the phone lines, which prevented non-English speaking citizens from claiming these services.
The pandemic has magnified mental health issues in our community at an alarming rate. It exposes the need for us to look at this crisis from a more holistic angle, with a need to open up conversations, break the stigma, and advocate for culturally appropriate services designed to cater to our communities’ entire wellbeing.