Initiative ends silence about Asian American mental health

Illustration: Anna Dworzecka

For Asian Americans, it’s often taboo to discuss mental health issues, says Rooshey Hasnain.

But a campuswide initiative is breaking through that silence, hosting a series of programs to bring to light the struggles Asian Americans face related to mental health.

“Mental health is not discussed in our communities and we’re trying to normalize it,” said Hasnain, clinical assistant professor of disability and human development and Asian American studies.

“We just don’t talk about it, so there’s this impression that Asian Americans are not really dealing with these issues.”

The Asian American Studies Program Community Engagement Project brings together campus leaders, student groups and community organizations to raise awareness of mental health issues.

The project is part of UIC’s Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions initiative, a five-year grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education and led by Asian American studies professor Kevin Kumashiro.

Since last fall, the group has hosted documentary screenings and a series of discussions for Asian Americans on mental health, hate crimes, sexuality and more, Hasnain said.

The next campus event, called “The Small, Dark Room,” is a performance by local actors of monologues on mental health. Last semester, students in one of Hasnain’s courses collected stories from Asian Americans on living with mental illness and selected six for the performance.

The campus performance takes place at 4:30 p.m. April 25 at the events center in Stukel Towers. The monologues will also be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 8, 9, 15 and 16 at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre in the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St.

“To have performers share these stories and create a dialogue among the audience is an opportunity to advance the ongoing steps that we’re trying to take,” she said.

The initiative highlights resources for students who are struggling with mental illness, such as the Counseling Center and Wellness Center, Hasnain said.

“We want students to be aware of the fact that these exist, that they’re welcoming and it’s OK to go there,” she said.

Hasnain is collaborating with Jae Jin Pak, chair of the Asian American Suicide Prevention Initiative, to promote wellness resources.

“We want to encourage Asian American students who may be struggling with academics, family or community, that if it’s a real concern for them, there are places where they can go,” Pak said.

Graduate student Priyang Baxi, a member of a student task force that helps organize the initiative’s events, wants to help students feel comfortable talking about mental health.

“I’ve had friends and family members who, when they experience a mental health situation, keep it within themselves because they feel like if they tell anyone they will be judged,” said Baxi, president of the Asian American Public Health Student Organization.

“To prevent any issues like this from occurring in the future, it’s good to provide the tools of what resources are available on campus.”

Though mental health issues are personal, public dialogues are crucial, Pak said.

“Being in a room where you see members of your own community coming together to acknowledge the issue is a very powerful experience,” he said.

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