Interview with Grace and Maria

Grace and Maria are two Asian American young professional women living in the Midwest. They recently became friends and bonded over shared experiences of dealing with mental illness in their families. In this interview, they hope to show how important it is to share stories in order to break the stigma about mental illness in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

1. Why are you passionate about mental health in AAPI communities?

Maria: My mother has suffered from psychotic delusions since I was a young girl, which caused our family tremendous pain. We endured this pain in silence for many years due to stigma and shame. Learning more about the origins and prevalence of mental illness – and eventually getting comfortable with talking about my mom’s mental illness with family members and even strangers – has been a challenging yet transformative experience. I hope that more AAPI families can learn how to navigate these challenges to improve outcomes and reduce suffering within our communities.

Grace: My mom was diagnosed with late onset schizophrenia about three years ago. My family’s experience opened my eyes to the complexities of accessing mental healthcare and understanding the related legal and justice systems. Navigating these systems can be confusing, emotionally exhausting, and extremely lonely. As an Asian American, I found that the loneliness created by stigma regarding mental illness was exacerbated due to lack of culturally competent mental health professionals and community support services serving immigrant communities.

2. What is most difficult about loving someone with a mental illness? Is there a particular experience or experiences that stands out for you?

Maria: My mom’s condition is somewhat unique because it prevents her from being able to even perceive that she is mentally ill (i.e. she has complete “lack of insight”). In the past, we used to fight a lot when I tried to convince her that she was sick— she thought I was accusing her of being a liar when I said her delusions weren’t real. After reading a book called I Am Not Sick I Don’t Need Help by Xavier Amador, I learned a better approach for helping loved ones accept treatment even when they think they are perfectly healthy. One of the things I still struggle with is how to respond when she wants me to support her delusional beliefs, while showing her the love and support she needs from her daughter. Also, going out together in public can be difficult because sometimes my mom starts talking to other people about her delusions, and she can’t see that it’s making everyone around her uncomfortable.

Grace: As a daughter, I was in denial that my mother had a mental illness for a long time. Many of my mother’s delusions and paranoid thoughts were related to her experience as an immigrant, a woman of color, and a mother of daughters. As a social activist myself, I found myself understanding the roots of many of my mother’s paranoid perspectives on society, such as the overreaches of government surveillance or dangers of being an immigrant woman society of racialized sexism. As a result, by the time I recognized she had a mental illness, she was in a very severe psychotic stage. One of the most difficult experiences was taking the steps through the court system and with the police to involuntarily hospitalize my mom. For the entire week my mother was in the hospital, from the time the police came to pick her up at her home, I doubted whether we (my sisters and I) had done the right thing from the time the police came to pick her up from her home until she was released by the hospital.

3. Mental illness doesn’t just impact the individual, it impacts the entire family. How has your role in your family changed or been impacted by mental illness in your family?

Maria: My mother’s mental illness was a big factor in my parents’ divorce, which led to both my parents leaning heavily on me for emotional support.. As the oldest of four, I often took on the responsibility of handling my mother’s mental illness, while my younger siblings were somewhat protected from learning all the disturbing details of her delusions when they were growing up. Now that they are more mature, I think my mom’s condition has brought me and my siblings closer together.

Grace: My mother’s mental illness has put a lot of strain on the relationship between siblings in my family. Each of the siblings in my family has a different relationship with my mom, and has different limitations related to how much time and emotional energy we are able dedicate to my mom’s mental health,. These differences can cause a lot of strain. Supporting someone with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia can be traumatizing in a lot of ways, so it also affects our mental health, which affects our relationships with each other and other relationships in our lives, including our significant others.

4. What do you do to take care of yourself, while you are also a caretaker? What have you found to be most helpful, and what advice would you give to someone who is also struggling?

Grace: Taking care of your own mental health is so important, especially when you have a loved one with a mental illness. As the oldest of four, I took on a lot of responsibility for my mom’s mental health, and often put my own mental health, and my relationship with my partner on the back burner. But the reality of it is that you can’t help others without first taking care of yourself!

I got a lot of support from talking to other caretakers with similar experiences whom I met through family-to-family support groups provided by National Alliance for Mental Illness. Sharing my story with others has helped in my healing journey, and helped to build community where those connections didn’t previously exist. I have also gained a lot of strength from remembering my friend Tez, whom I lost last year to suicide. His motto was “You Ain’t Alone.” I try to remember that daily.

Maria: My biggest piece of advice as a caretaker would be to talk to someone about your situation, ask for help, and do it early. When I was a kid, my dad didn’t know what to do and had no one to help him. And even though I knew something was wrong, I never talked about it to anyone outside of home, not even my closest friends. In the past few years, I started opening up to other people. I met Grace, and her willingness to be vulnerable about her situation helped me feel more comfortable about opening up to her as well. Since then, I’ve been amazed by the number of people I’ve talked with who have also struggled to deal with serious mental illness in their families. Some of them were strangers and some were people I had known for years. Sharing has gotten much easier with practice, and I no longer feel as helpless or alone as before. Talk to others, share your experiences, and help break the stigma.

Also, the quality of care is so important – for both you and your loved one. The wrong psychiatrist can be worse than no treatment at all,.. In the Midwest, it can be difficult to find Asian American psychiatrists, but hopefully you can find someone who is at least culturally competent by asking for referrals through your local NAMI chapter or your local Asian American social services agency. Search for a quality provider, get your family member’s consent to speak with the psychiatrist if possible, establish a relationship with the psychiatrist, and work together with them to help your loved one so you are not left in the dark. Don’t be afraid to seek counseling for yourself either!

Editor’s Note: The names used in this blog post are pseudonyms, to protect the identities of Grace and Maria’s mothers.

I need help.

I need help.

I never wanted or intended to admit my mental illness because like many others, it was never a topic of conversation. My illness is rooted in feelings of shame and inability to be the best I can possibly be. I portray myself as strong and independent; I am educated, I have a supportive family and friend group, I have a job, a stable income, insurance, and a plethora of other privileges. I don’t need help, but I do.

You can busy yourself to the point of exhaustion – you can practice yoga every day, you can meditate, work out, you can share your feelings to your friends – really good friends will listen, others will help by taking you out. All the happy hours, the shots, the dancing, may feel good. You may choose not to go home after a night of drinking and spend the night with someone who makes you feel something. These may or may not be therapeutic but at the end of the day, you need to go home. I have been running away from this feeling and lack thereof. I ask myself, why do we only seek help when we crash and burn? Why does it take failing grades, a lost job, or a suicide attempt before we seek care? We take a sick day when we are consumed with physical ailments – a bad cough, the flu, a broken limb, or even a bad hangover, but what about the debilitating effects of mental illness? What about the exhaustion from anxiety and overthinking everything? The fatigue from suppressing and avoiding the mental clutter that weighs us down every single day; why do we feel weak if we admit to our mental limitations?

No, I cannot just get over it, just like a diabetic cannot get over their inability to produce insulin or the cancer patient who cannot just stop the uncontrolled growth of their cancer cells. I need to face this illness and recognize it for what it is. Only when I can accept that this is how my mind works, that I can seek the help I need and finally start my path to recovery. We all need help and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I need help and I have sought it.


Amy Li

Guest Post by Amy Li

Dear younger self,

When you were a little girl in China, you wanted to be a gypsy — to sing, dance, and travel around the world. The truth is life is a long path with lots of surprises along the way. You are absolutely correct to always follow your heart and your passion, work hard, and make your dreams come true.

You probably will not realize your curiosity about the world will fly you over the Pacific Ocean. You’ll land in sunny California. You’ll get to pursue something you have always love — creativity and art. You’ll work your ass off and get into one of the top design programs in the country. You’ll get recruited by one of the top internet brands and have your first iPhone app featured in the New York Times.

But the truth is, the word “dream” will have many different meanings in different stages of your life. You will learn sometimes a corporate career is not necessarily the most fulfilling for your personal growth. You will apply and receive a scholarship to the top social entrepreneurship program Singularity University at NASA, known for empowering leaders to use technology to change the world.

And you will learn that life can be as dramatic as a movie. While you are inspired to change the world, you’ll be shocked by a Stage IV cancer diagnosis. Your dream will take a back seat to surviving.

Your fight will teach you that while pain is real, so is hope. You will learn that things do get better, no matter how bad they may appear. You will survive and come out an even stronger person than before.

You will learn that your dream will return and your cancer will reveal a new mission in your life. The love and support you receive will make you want to give back. As a cancer survivor, you will learn that you are not alone.

You learn that patients are often homebound and very easy to fall into depression. You will discover that creative arts therapy can really improve quality of your life and ease your pain, and it’s been proven by published medical research.

Sadly, music and dance are very underutilized in healthcare. So, you’ll build a live video platform so patients like yourself can dance and laugh with anyone, any time, from the comfort of their home.

You will learn that recovering from cancer and moving on with your life is hard, but being a social entrepreneur is even harder. You may sometimes question why you chose a much more difficult path, but the love, support, and appreciation you will receive will make you quickly realize your newfound dream is worth it.

You will also realize self care is not selfish, and mental health starts with yourself. And you will write this poem to tell yourself it is ok to Let Go.

Letting go is a process
when the shock is over and the pain
starts to overwhelm
it is a decision in the mind
yet, a struggle in the heart

You breathe deeply
hoping to ease the pain
It decides to linger all around you
through your muscles, your bones, your cells
it tries to take you over
it tries to break you down
all you can tell yourself is to never give in

Listen to that music you always love
dance your heart out to that beautiful tune
as you swing, bounce, jump, hop, extend,
you will get it slowly out of your system
your muscles, your bones, your cells

If your tears decide to visit you
let them flow, and flush out like a waterfall in the forest
‘it’s ok and it will be ok’
the waves will gently whisper in your ear
‘you are just as beautiful as you always were,
after the rainstorm, there is a rainbow,
in your heart, in your eyes, in the sky.’

Kristina Wong

Guest Post by Kristina Wong
As part of TEAM (Together Empowering Asian Minds), a new campaign to address mental health among Asian American women, APIA women are publishing letters to their younger selves.

Dear 12-year-old Kristina Wong,

It’s me — your older OLD ASS self writing from the future — 2016!

If I remember you correctly, you are wearing two pairs of scrunchy socks over tacky bright leggings, your peers shun you as a “weirdo pervert,” and you stay awake at night wondering if you’ll ever engage in sexual activity.

Surprise Young Kristina! Nothing changes in the future! The difference is… you will actually forge a CAREER out of your awkwardness! That’s right! You are going to grow up to be a PERFORMANCE ARTIST!

I know what you’re thinking:

What the hell kind of doctor is a “performance artist”?
How will we break the news to Mommy and Daddy?
You mean I really won’t have sex in the future… ever?

In the future, you will monetize your agony for big bucks! (Ok, maybe not big bucks. Maybe not any bucks.) But a hell of a lot of people will know what a freak you are and you won’t have to hide it anymore! As it turns out, a lot of Asian American girls are living in complete fear of failing as you are right now! Like you, they are incredibly unhappy and terrified to let anybody know that they are terrified and sad and scared! It’s like you and all these other depressed Asian American girls are the Goonies (if the Goonies was a secret society of girls governed by shame and fear).

By the way, the actor who played Chunk from The Goonies is going to be your entertainment lawyer when you are older, but that’s another letter.

Where was I? Oh yes! When you grow up, you are going to bypass the Miss Saigon auditions altogether and make a one woman show called Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s a show about the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. It’s a statistic you don’t know exists now, but when you read about it shortly after college, you’ll think: Wow, seems so unbelievable and yet, so innately something I understand.

You will write your show without permission from anybody in Hollywood! You will stand alone on a stage and tell people all over America what a nut job you are! And people will pay to see it and give you a standing ovation after! And then you’ll get in the newspaper and occasionally, someone will flip you some grant money! Somehow you mastered the tragedy plus time equation and made a show about depression into a comedy!

What you have been told success looks like — it’s a crock of shit. You will drive yourself crazy chasing somebody else’s dream. If you live in fear and deny your own truth (which is, that you love being a big fucking freak) you will be killing yourself on the inside.

From this older stage of life, I will say it still is very difficult to deal with self-loathing and doubt. But what makes it easier is you are getting bolder, braver, and put up with less bullshit year after year. You speak up for what’s right. You do what people tell you is completely impractical. You build the road that never existed before. This is your journey as an Asian American woman.

Now stop picking your zits.


P.S. When you get to high school, you need not flirt with the boys who do theater. They are gay. Yes, really. But you won’t find out until years later.

The above is excerpted from an upcoming feature for Together Empowering Asian Minds (TEAM). Kristina Wong is an Ambassador for TEAM, a national public awareness campaign aimed at addressing urgent and unique mental health challenges faced by young Asian American women and their loved ones. TEAM will be holding campaign kickoff events on September 20 at college campuses nationwide. Follow TEAM on Facebook for more information. Link to Article.