Daniel Gu had always seen his father as a light and open man. “He’s also a very strong person,” Gu says, “and he taught me to be strong.” However, in 2019, Gu’s father was crossing an intersection near their Portland home when he was hit by a car running a red light. The down-to-earth guy Gu knew was gone. “I remember my dad coming to my room and crying, talking about his feelings. This had never happened before.
The experience was just one of many for Gu, now a senior at Westview High School. Time and time again, he saw a theme of mental health issues among family and friends within the Asian American community. However, these problems have always been ruled out. He would hear a series of responses, rising to “It’s no big deal” and “We’ll just put it away for now.”
At the time of his father’s accident, Gu decided it was time to change the way mental health was talked about — and not talked about — in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Along with friends and classmates Aaron Li, Helen Chen, and Joyce Chen, he created Project Lotus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental health in Asian American families and communities.
For many AAPIs who have immigrated to the United States, mental health is an unknown subject. But for AAPIs growing up in America, mental health can be an important part of their overall well-being. “There’s a huge difference between older and younger generations,” says Kavitha Goldowitz, a mental health professional in Portland who has seen patients from across the diaspora with a particular focus on South Asians. “Mental health is so much less stigmatized with the younger generation.”
There are many cultural and systemic reasons for this intergenerational gap. Crossing miles of land and ocean, immigrants are faced with the task of leaving one set of cultural values for another. Many AAPIs come from collectivist societies, where the well-being of the group takes precedence over the individual. People may avoid conflict or special attention in order to harmonize with others. A collectivist community, valuing interpersonal relationships, can be a strong source of support. There are “forces of collectivism that should not be overlooked,” says Goldowitz.
However, these values are at odds in an American culture where the emphasis is on the individual to express themselves and take space with their needs. It is between these two cultures that AAPIs may struggle to express their emotional and psychological needs. “There’s a feeling of, ‘I want to belong first, then understand my needs,'” says Goldowitz, “It causes a disconnection from your own feelings and thoughts. If you’re not connected to what’s going on for you, it’s a big hurdle to even know you need mental health support.
Systemically, even for AAPIs able to understand their emotional needs and overcome mental health stigma, finding culturally sensitive service providers is difficult. Helen Chen, CFO of Project Lotus, shares that many of their friends who have gone through therapy have found it helpful. Therapists, they say, aren’t “culturally appropriate enough to really help them get to the root of the problem, rather than just removing surface-level stressors.” Therapists may not have the necessary training to know how to uncover these underlying reasons. “One of the things that a culturally insensitive therapist does is try to go straight to the emotions,” says Goldowitz, which only backs away in some patients.
AAPIs may also struggle to seek help because of the model minority myth, the harmful belief that all AAPIs experience educational and economic success with little or no hardship. The myth erases the possibility that AAPIs can experience a full range of human circumstances, ranging from suffering to financial problems, depression, or even pursuing careers outside of STEM fields. As a former high school teacher, Goldowitz noticed how these pressures pushed some students too far, and the experiences motivated her to enter the field of mental health:[Students] were not able to spread their wings, and this manifested in depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, cutting behaviors.
Project Lotus brings these conversations to the fore. Through their community blog, they highlight a diversity of voices and open the “pressure cooker” in which AAPI youth can feel trapped. . For Gu, the organization’s executive director, dismantling the myth of the model minority can mean directly educating the community about it and that “the simple act of raising awareness about mental health is taking a step towards putting question the idea that Asian Americans are a monolith and that we can’t trouble.” By sharing stories, Project Lotus is able to “show people who don’t have a voice that they are not not alone”.
Although the blog was successful in connecting with younger AAPIs, it took trial and error for the group’s messages and resources to reach the immigrant parents they most wanted to connect with. The group regularly hosts webinars for families on topics such as communicating with children during the pandemic and dealing with school burnout, but attendance was low at first.
Aaron Li, the organization’s marketing director, says they initially promoted webinars through apps like Instagram, but quickly realized the parents they were trying to reach “just weren’t on those platforms.” . They turned to popular messaging apps among AAPIs like WeChat, KaKaoTalk, and WhatsApp. The change in strategy has dramatically increased their reach. “The experience really helped show the importance of cultural sensitivity,” Gu says.
The Lotus project succeeds where others have failed. By meeting their community where they are and centering Asian representation, Project Lotus builds trust with its audience. Individuals shared how much they identified with the messages and how some wish they had had these resources available when they were younger.
In three short years, Project Lotus was able to validate and standardize AAPI experiences that always happened but were rarely talked about. Gu knows there may still be ideas his family doesn’t understand, but “the fact that we can talk about it and we can discuss it is a big step forward.” Reflecting on his father’s accident, Gu said, “We can talk about it more freely. We have already spoken of therapy; it’s something that would never really have happened in the past. I just hope other families can have similar changes.