After a traumatic year, Asian Americans make healing a family matter. Here’s how they’re talking about mental health across generations

Licensed clinician Jeanie Chang says the emotional response to trauma like the Monterey Park mass shooting is concerning: "It's getting to the point where there's a numbness factor because that's the only way people are protecting themselves."

Months after mass shootings in California’s Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, Asian Americ.

“The ‘sandwich population’ that are caring for them are telling me things like, ‘Yeah, my parents are buying guns now’ because what they understand is the fear and the grief, the loss of feeling safe physically and emotionally,” explains licensed clinician Jeanie Chang. “We have a lot of unresolved grief because things keep happening.”

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It is also Mental Health Awareness Month. So Impact Your World checked in with Chang, a therapist specializing in the AAPI community, to discuss challenges in generational and cultural approaches to mental health and how to bridge the divide. (Note: Chang has not counseled either of the men charged in the attacks.)

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: In your opinion, do these shootings perhaps speak to a larger problem within the Asian American community? What’s really going on here?

Jeanie Chang, LMFT: Let’s start with the good thing – it brought to light the fact that the intergenerational stress and trauma of this community needs to be addressed. It brought up all this deep-rooted struggle within the community that’s so complex that comes down to mental health, and then the whole “saving face” and families protecting one another when they’re really making things a little bit more dysfunctional.

During the pandemic, everything escalated for all of us. And so I’m just thinking it tripled, and you reach a boiling point. And I really believe anybody cannot handle suppressing all that

The younger population is more advantaged when it comes to understanding mental health. They grew up with that. But the older population never had that. So to go back and relearn something is very hard. And even my age group of middle-aged, and often 55-plus, also struggle with it because it was very limited when we were growing up.

We are born to connect, so if we don’t do that, that’s probably the biggest hit on your mental health. So that’s another note on the shootings – they’re also very isolated. Sometimes (with) Asian men, or some stereotypes they face, that’s not emphasized. You need that connection or you will feel unhealthy things.

The mental health taboo in our community, or talking about it, runs very deep. It’s just not part of our language in the Asian culture to talk about emotion. So I think that contributes to a lot of the stress of today.

You work with all different generations. What are your observations as to how each approaches mental health?

Gen Z is moving the needle when it comes to bringing mental health up everywhere, like language, workplace, to their bosses. People think that they’re less resilient or they have more problems; they’re just talking about the problems. However, they’re so wanting to have these conversations they start butting heads with their grandparents or even their parents. So I tend to see a lot of conflict because there is a lack of understanding on both fronts.

Let’s go to the flip end of the older population where they’re the exact opposite. This is the older population that also has a lot of pride. That’s good – they’re proud of who they are, they worked their butt off. There’s a survival instinct. So that means for them, why would they talk about their emotions and then show any kind of “weakness” they haven’t done for 50 years?

Then you have the middle population, the Millennials and Gen X, that I think are actually pretty crucial. They’re the ones able to make decisions in families. They’re the ones that are also in the workplace leading mid-level management. There’s a little bit more wiggle room to talk about mental health. The Gen Xers and older Millennials are actually a great resource for both parties.

What you can do in each generation is match mental health resources. Older generation, for instance, may not go to therapy, but they may do a support group or an elder care group. They need to feel like they’re not alone. Gen X, it’s a struggle for them to go (to therapy), but they’ll push everyone else to go. And then the younger population, obviously, are much more open.

But I would say across the board, there has to be an understanding that where you’re at is where you’re at. I just need you to focus on taking care of you. It’s just so much easier for you to do that for your own well-being then hit a brick wall trying to fix them, because we can’t fix somebody else.

Taking care of yourself helps the people around you, right? It’s like the airplane mask – put on your mask before helping others.

You are your own person that you need to prioritize. And that’s the struggle still – not so much in the younger population – but even then, they’re grappling with narratives of people telling them, “Stop being so selfish.” Across the board in the Asian community, that self is very difficult to grasp. Self-care is just a word, it’s not selfish.

We’re really good with physical hygiene. But there’s also mental health hygiene, too. I need you to take that seriously because that’s your mind, and your core brain controls everything.

You can provide education, you can provide the connection, the validation, you yourself are trying to be healthy, and they see, “Oh, Jeanie’s taking care of herself. What’s she doing?” “Oh, she went to therapy.” Just being a model of that behavior, that’s what’s going to help them. But at the end of day, they have to reach their own conclusion.

If you want to check in on an elder and don’t know where to start, how do you make it not intimidating?

Maybe you don’t ask them how they feel because they don’t know how to answer that. And if anything, I’ve seen them actually immediately go to the defensive mechanism. It’s very understandable when you’re an authority figure to feel defensive because you feel a little vulnerable because you don’t know something.

I would go back to the core of what that population needs, which is they want to provide wisdom and leave a legacy. Things about their life, they can definitely answer. Have them share a story with you.

Engage in an activity that you know they’ll enjoy doing, even if there’s nothing spoken. That shared space, just so you know, is still connecting. Cook with them, or maybe help serve something as you see them doing that. That is the way they connect. They want to feel they gave you some sort of wisdom, whether it’s verbally or through a story or showing you a skill. All of that is good for their mental health.

The other thing to do with family is just watching movies. They need to see some other examples on screen. I have seen tremendous benefits because you’re watching something together. That’s opening up windows about experiences that maybe your parents never shared.

You just want to validate. As you’re trying to talk about giving them resources, also commend the traditions that they do. The validation that they don’t get as much is very critical to their own well-being.

Your aging parents are not going to come to you and say, “That was awesome, I feel close now.” But what is going to happen is perhaps when you need to communicate something, they’ll be more apt to listen to you because you connected with them.

You need to make an effort to be consistent because it takes time, right?

Understand starting a conversation is very different than getting the outcome you want. It’s not one and done. Sometimes it is, but it’s not always that way. It is a process, always.

It takes time, but also your goal is not to go, “I am going to change my grandparents. We are going to talk about mental health, damn it!” The goal is for you to connect with your family member and understand what makes them tick.

And in general, family conflict is what a lot of Asians tend to avoid because they think it’s (bad) conflict. They’re like, “We shouldn’t have a conflict. We’re fine,” when a lot of my education is also like, “No, conflict is healthy.” Conflicts need to exist for change to happen.

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