Updated: Dec 21, 2021
My “Rebellious” Journey to Talking About My Mental Health
By Janet Namkung
“Hi, my name is Janet, and I am an Asian American mental health advocate who is still in recovery, every day.” For the longest time, saying those words felt like a coming out story or something I was ashamed of – so I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be for you.
For the last 10 years, I have been actively serving as an Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community advocate, mostly in the nonprofit space. In my world, you eventually learn that there is a common reason why many of us choose to serve the community – we’ve probably benefited from community organizations or wished we knew these resources existed when we were growing up. While I fit into both categories, I identify with them at two very different points of my life.
I was one of those kids that folks often saw as “really mature” for their age, responsible, and extroverted, but I was also known to have my occasional outbursts, tantrums, and far too many absences at school. See, what many folks didn’t know was the life I had outside of school: hagwon, sports, and music lessons. I grew up in a household with parents who suffer from repressed generational and immigration trauma, that manifested itself in the forms of physical and emotional abuse, addiction, abandonment, and children who had to grow up a little too fast. This was all on top of the existing barriers experienced by many new immigrants and their children, such as lack of access, language and education barriers, struggling finances, and discrimination. While everyone saw us as living the “American Dream” – I was living a childhood nightmare.
As a child who was experiencing constant fear, instability, and adult responsibilities too early, I really wish I knew I was ALLOWED to seek help. I was raised to be a “good” Asian daughter and to never speak of what went on at home. My mother told me that I would come off as “crazy”, embarrass myself and the family, and not be respected by the outside world for portraying weakness. I was told that every family has its problems and that my family’s problems were no different. I know in my heart that my mother loves me and did the best she could, but I also know that she didn’t prepare me for the symptoms of trauma that I would be experiencing and how to address them.
To me, my salvation was to study hard and do everything I could to “run away” to college and never look back. All while never addressing my own traumas, because “everyone has problems” and I wasn’t anything special. After finally making my move to a school in Washington, DC – I felt like I could breathe for the first time. But it didn’t take long until the weekly phone calls came. Every call I had with my mother consisted of their business suffering due to the 2007 financial crisis, my father’s continued disappearances, and my mother wishing I was closer to home. After completing my first year of college, I made the decision to take a year of absence to go back home in an attempt to help my family and our business.
Going back home and leaving my “salvation” drove me into a deep depression. I found myself living day to day as a high-functioning alcoholic, all while watching my mother do the same. Depression and the drinking continued and increased, especially after I decided to not go back to DC and continue my education back home while continuing to work on my family’s business.
After 3 years of being depressed, reliving my traumas, and constantly fighting with my family, I decided to pack my things and leave – no plan, no home, no money. For the first time, I chose me and took drastic measures. Through the help of my mentor and friends, I was able to spend my last year of college away from my family, while sleeping on an air mattress in the middle of a small dorm room, securing an on-campus job, and tutoring students.
That year away from home, gave me the ability to find the courage to acknowledge that my experiences are not normal and that I deserve to talk about them, get help, and do things for me outside of work, school, and family. It has now been about 10 years that I have been actively talking about my experiences and practicing different exercises and attending counseling sessions to address my whole health (mind, body, and spirit). I still have my ups and downs – but I now finally feel like I have the courage and knowledge to understand that my mental health is just as important as addressing any other physical illness.
In the AANHPI community, stories like mine are out there and they emphasize the serious need for more culturally competent mental health services. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the overall suicide rate for Asian Americans is half that of the general population with elevated rates in AAPI females between the ages of 15-24 and the highest rates of suicide seen in women over 65. But research shows that AAPIs have the lowest utilization rates for mental health care among all populations, regardless of gender, age, and geographical location, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
According to the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA), the underutilization usually stems from cultural stigmas, lack of culturally appropriate services, existing delivery systems failing to recognize the impact of culture, race, language, and other critical factors, and many services are fragmented, ineffective, and splits the mind, body, and spirit.
While the past version of myself really could have used the help of community organizations and access to mental health services, the present version of myself is on a journey of recovery through the love of community, the use of the power of storytelling, and access to resources and knowledge. I continue to advocate for the AANHPI mental health community because communities of color need more access to get the help they need. Whether it’s lifting the burden of cultural stigmas, creating easier access to culturally competent mental health services, or demanding safe spaces for AANHPI community members, young and old, to be able to learn more about addressing the mental health as much as they would their physical health.
It should be just as easy to say, “I need to go see a therapist” as saying “I need to go see a dentist.”
About the Author
Janet Namkung is an Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander activist and organizer. She currently serves as a Commissioner for the Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Community Development. She previously worked with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, and Council of Korean Americans. She also served on the board of directors for Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL) and the AmeriCorps DC Chapter. Follow her on Instagram @hyun_ne and Facebook.