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How to Manage the Mental Health Effects of Anti-Asian Racism and Violence

By Michelle Yang

If you’ve been struggling with the mental health impact of microaggressions or outright racism, you’re not alone. Research shows that depression and anxiety have increased sevenfold among Asian Americans during the pandemic. 

The past few years have been especially challenging for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Our communities were repeatedly used as a political scapegoat and targeted with hate. The nonprofit initiative Stop AAPI Hate recorded nearly 11,500 hate incidents during this time.

We deserve to have care and support to cope with the challenges our community is facing. Here are some tips for protecting yourself and maintaining wellness. 

Identify Experiences of Racism and Discrimination

We can be so conditioned to day-to-day racism and discrimination that we may not even recognize it sometimes. Ask yourself if you have ever experienced the following:

  • Racial stereotyping. Stereotyping is when someone makes assumptions about your behavior, abilities, or character based on your race, such as assuming that because you’re Asian, you’ll be good at math, you can’t speak English, or you’ll be quiet and shy. The fallout can be that you lose out on opportunities because of these assumptions. 
  • Microaggressions. These are subtle, everyday actions that are insulting to your race, such as making jokes with racist overtones, guessing your race, confusing you for another Asian person, or avoiding pronouncing your name or pronouncing it wrong without trying to correct themselves. (These examples can become verbal aggression or overt racism, depending on the severity and frequency.)
  • Unequal treatment. That may include being denied opportunities, resources, or services that are given to other people. Teachers grading you or treating you differently due to the model minority myth is one example. It can also affect school admissions and whether you receive need-based scholarships because of the way you’re perceived. 
  • Verbal or physical aggression. Even if you are not the direct target of racial aggression, being exposed to it when it happens to others can cause something called vicarious or secondary trauma. Some examples include racial slurs, hate speech, and violence.
  • Racism on an organizational level. Systemic racism can result in unfair treatment based on identities including race. One historical example is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a U.S. law that prevented Chinese people from immigrating to America for over a decade. There are still things happening today that demonstrate a culture of institutional discrimination, such as when a university dean mocked Asian language at a graduation ceremony or a college professor demanded a Vietnamese student anglicize her name. Stanford has put together a comprehensive timeline of systemic racism against AAPI people.

Tune In to What You’re Feeling

Symptoms of mental health issues may not always be obvious, especially if your family or community doesn’t talk about mental health or talks about it only in a stigmatized way. It may be easier to notice physical symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as:

  • A faster heartbeat
  • Shallow or rapid breathing
  • Sweaty palms
  • Repetitive thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Not wanting to eat or wanting to eat more than usual
  • Stomach pains
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Unusual desire to avoid certain situations or people

Take Care of Yourself

Facing racism is exhausting and emotionally draining, so it’s important for your emotional, physical, and mental wellness to practice basic daily self-care, such as getting enough sleep. Prioritize rest and relaxation. Take breaks throughout the day to recharge, which can take many forms, such as stretching, yoga, meditation, walking, breathing exercises, taking a hot bath, or taking a power nap.

Do What Brings You Joy (Which Can Be Anything!)

You choose! You could redecorate your room, put together a jigsaw puzzle, or read a mystery novel. Get creative by writing a poem, drawing your pet, composing a song, or listening to music. Try moving your body by going hiking, dancing, ziplining, or indoor skydiving, or just text or call your bestie or grandma.

Connect With Your People

Building and maintaining connections with others who share your experiences and values can be an important source of support and validation. 

  • Join a support group. The Yellow Chair Collective offers many virtual support groups on specific topics such as disordered eating and the South Asian female experience. You can also look for a local AAPI support group by searching what’s available in your region from nonprofit groups, universities, hospitals, and more.
  • Attend cultural or community events. Whether you celebrate Diwali, Holi, Mid-Autumn Festival, or Seollal—or you simply want to learn more, get in touch with your roots, or meet people in the community—local celebrations are a fun way to get out there and (bonus!) have some great food.

Be Kind to Yourself

Self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness, understanding, and empathy—particularly during difficult times. 

  • Are you really hard on yourself? Flip the script and be your own cheerleader. Imagine you’re talking to a friend and think about what you would say to them if they were in your situation. 
  • Forgive yourself. Making mistakes is how we learn. 
  • Do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Does karaoke or singing in the shower make you feel like a rock star? Does wearing your favorite jacket or heels make you feel like strutting? Is relaxing at home alone in your pajamas more your speed?

Get Help When You Need It

If you are going through a hard time emotionally, mentally, or physically as a result of racism—or for any reason—seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. 

Find a mental health professional trained to be culturally responsive for guidance and support in developing coping strategies and addressing the underlying effects of racism on your mental health.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.