By Dr. Pata Suyemoto
I am an Asian American woman with lived-experience with chronic major depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I have lived with mental illness since I was in junior high school, when I used to sit in the dark at my mother’s desk watching the snow fall and wondering how long it would take to die if I went outside in the frozen world. I am lucky, in that I got treatment and have learned to live with my conditions. However, I have to navigate the world differently than those who do not have mental health issues.
For instance, I trained to be a university professor, but the work as an untenured faculty member was too stressful for me to sustain. At the time, this fact was difficult to accept. Yet moving away from an academic position allowed me to find my passion and reinvent myself as a mental health activist. At this point, I am very upfront with my conditions, but it wasn’t always that way. I remember a time when I was teaching a class on diversity and although I could talk about my own marginalized identities as a Japanese-American, as a woman, and as a bisexual person, it was challenging to talk about my mental health disability. I was aware of the stigma and worried that my students would think of me as less capable. However, when I did disclose my disability, my students (at least to my face) were compassionate and many of them visited me in my office to share their own mental health struggles. This experience reinforced the importance of having these open conversations about mental health.
This desire to open up the conversations about mental health in the Asian American communities has led me to the work I do with Asian Women for Health as well as the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA). I have been part of the planning committee for the Annual Asian American Mental Health Forum in Massachusetts for the last thirteen years. This year the Forum will be held virtually on Saturday, July 30th. The title of the forum this year is Building Resilience: Healing Trauma Across Generations. The forum is a rich experience where we come together as a community to talk about mental health across positions and identities.
I also had the opportunity to talk to Audrey Paek of Asian Women for Health’s podcast From Resilience to Radiance about an initiative at NAAPIMHA. We are creating a network of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders with lived-experience called the National Asian American Pacific Islander Empowerment Network (NAAPIEN). Our working mission is currently:
The National Asian American Pacific Islander Empowerment Network (NAAPIEN) brings together Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) who have lived experience with mental health issues, either as individuals or as impacted friends or family. We work to support each other in a world that marginalizes AANHPIs and those of us with mental health challenges. We share our unique experiences, knowledge, and perspectives to inform mental health awareness, practices, and policy. We aim to tear down stigma and stereotypes, and to work toward liberation within our communities and beyond.
We invite those with lived experience as a person with mental health challenges, a suicide loss survivor, a suicide attempt survivor, or as an impacted family or friend, to join us. If you are interested email me at email@example.com.
The Forum and NAAPIEN are two initiatives that support open conversation about mental health issues in the AAPI community. And as a community, we need to find more ways to have these conversations because they are not only important for our individual and community wellness, but they could also save a life.