At her high school in Harlem, Bre’Yona Montalvo was the kind of classmate who always made time to listen. “Being in discussions in class and with friends, I was helping others without intentionally planning to help them,” says Montalvo, who…
Ph.D. Student in Clinical Psychology Works with Non-Profit to Fill Unmet Need in Asian Community
Jin Zhao is a fourth year Ph.D. student working toward his career goal of becoming a practicing psychologist. His qualifying exam project is researching Asian college students and how their experiences of microaggression are related to their attitudes about going to see a professional mental health service provider. Asian mental health is a subject that Zhao has always been interested in researching. Before coming to Syracuse, Zhao worked as a case manager at the only Asian language community clinic for substance use on the East Coast.
“I always wanted to serve my community and better understand it because there are not a lot of psychologists who can speak an Asian language and understand Asian populations,” Zhao says. While barriers exist in the United States for every group to address mental health and receive therapy, these challenges are especially prevalent for Asian communities because there is such a stigma around mental health, says Zhao. “It’s a taboo subject for a lot of the more conservative Asian communities,” Zhao said. Aside from the rarity of finding a therapist that speaks an Asian language, it is difficult to find therapists who are sensitive to the challenges that are found in different Asian cultures.
To help address the lack of culturally informed therapists for Asians and Asian Americans, Zhao first got involved with a Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Mental Health.” That has since been rolled into the “Asian Mental Health Collective.” Zhao volunteers his time and leads the Listeners Program. This program is a community-based peer mental health support team that provides free sessions of supportive listening for anyone interested in a session. The group currently has 52,700 users and people from every continent. SU News spoke to Zhao about his work with the Asian Mental Health Collective.
What is your contribution to the Asian Mental Health Collective?
I lead the Listeners Program and it has grown quite a lot since I inherited it. A lot of work went into front-loading efforts to design and create a community mental health service program from scratch. Now people can sign up for a session, and then we will assign them to a listener. I recruited listeners who either have training in therapy, are clinicians or grad students who work in human services. A few of them are Ph.D. students from Syracuse.
What is your role in the Listeners Program?
Leading the program involves coordinating personnel and coming up with novel ways to reach more users and support our volunteers. A lot of the work goes into training Listeners to use counseling skills to help people talk about difficult subjects. Trauma history can be especially prevalent, but for many people, getting help can be difficult. For example, women with sexual trauma and physical abuse reported difficulties in talking about their experience. This may be because it is a taboo subject in their culture, or no one believed them. Since beginning the program, we have held almost 400 sessions. There is a high need for it.
How many Listeners are volunteering their time?
Right now, we have eight to 10 listeners. We are lucky to have licensed therapists who volunteer their time to supervise the listeners. We also have a team of people who are constantly tracking data, writing training manuals and policies, and taking care of our logistics. In total, it is a team of 20 volunteers. But the amazing thing is that we all do it for free. We are constantly working, and it is amazing to see how committed people are to making this service run smoothly.
What is a typical experience for Asian Americans in therapy and how are you providing more culturally sensitive resources?
The history of therapy and therapy training originally was geared towards white middle-class people. How those theories conceptualize problems implicitly fits within the mold of white American culture. But, when therapists try to apply these theories to other cultures and different socioeconomic classes without adaptation, it is often inappropriate. I think one very blatant difference is conflict resolution. Many Asian cultures approach conflict by first considering how other people might react. Whenever we talk about interpersonal problems, we do not outright prioritize our emotional reactions, but rather we comment on the other person’s possible struggles and misunderstandings. Like the concept of “face” for maintaining our relationships. Face is an aspect of one’s reputation. For example, if I angrily confront someone and make a scene, then I lose my reputation. It is like a collective reputation for your groups or reputation for yourself. In this instance, if I do something outwardly where people can see my behavior, it looks bad despite any justification. It will look bad on me and my groups. For therapists who do not fully understand the nuances in our cultural differences, they may see this as submissiveness and ignoring personal feelings because Western cultures value individualism and assertiveness more.
Why are Asian Americans one of the critically under-served groups in mental health?
For many Asians who have had therapists from a different cultural background, they did not feel heard and did not go back to therapy. Or that maybe in their locations, they do not have access to therapists at all. Many folks in this group come from parts of the world where mental health is very much treated like a medical problem; the cost for therapy can be prohibitive, or that there are not mental health services in their healthcare infrastructure to help them. Government funding is also lacking, clinics can really use more money to do outreach in Asian communities. Education about mental health is integral to spreading awareness and help normalize seeking help. Fundamentally, there are not enough therapist trainees who are racial or ethnic minorities and training programs that address cultural differences. There is also a pervasive “model minority” myth that suggests Asians do not have problems both health-wise and socioeconomically, which is why there is such a lack of concern and attention on our communities.
Subtle Asian Mental Health started out by addressing access to care. As it grew bigger, the administrators of the group decided to expand it to work with different Asian mental health professionals and connect with them. They wanted different platforms to advocate for Asian mental health, to destigmatize the concept of mental health, and encourage people to feel less shame about going to therapy. We have a database that records as much information as possible about Asian therapists from around the country and register them on this database. We send out monthly newsletters about current Asian mental health projects and tools that are very digestible for folks that deal with anxiety or depression. We have weekly discussion groups, roundtables and support groups. There are so many of these projects that I cannot track them all, I am just one small part of it. Subtle Asian Mental Health joined together with other related projects and we now call it the Asian Mental Health Collective. It is a large grassroots network made up of advocates who are passionate about mental health and folks wanting to find out more about how to help themselves.