By Gargi Dixit
An Asian American Mental Health Discussion was held on February 16th, 2022, by the Asian American Center (AAC) at UNC-Chapel Hill. As Dr. Heidi Kim, the Director of the AAC, stated, the issue of mental health specific to the Asian American community at UNC has been a concern on campus for the past several years, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Founded in 2020 after sustained efforts by a strong student campaign team, the AAC aims to understand and engage with Asian American communities and cultures.
The idea for the event was born from the AAC’s mission of serving as a center for gathering the community. Its objective was to address the particular stresses of anti-AAPI hate and violence in the years following the beginning of the current pandemic. The event’s main speakers were Ms. Misha Mohan and Ms. Susan Chung, two Asian American therapists who joined CAPS last year. The evening was initiated by Dr. Krupal Amin, Associate Director of the AAC, who introduced Mohan and Chung, and shared the format of the event.
As therapists at CAPS, both Mohan and Chung were informed and aware of the multitudinous mental health concerns experienced by UNC students. They identified two major sources of stress shared by Asian American students, including family issues and academic stress. Mohan noted that the two can contribute to each other, as many Asian American cultures and families prioritize academics, which, combined with the academically intense environment at UNC, can be a compounded source of stress for Asian American students.
Delving further into academic stress experienced by Asian American students, Mohan further shared that Asian American culture broadly can inadvertently increase this, as it prioritizes being successful. The “model minority” myth is embedded in American society, sending indirect or direct messages to students and potentially having a huge impact on the amount of stress that Asian American students experience. Mohan further noted that at an elite institution like UNC, students often set themselves up to unrealistic standards, and experience imposter syndrome and guilt when they don’t meet those standards, contributing to a vicious cycle. Chung emphasized this, noting that the students that she meets with talk about parental expectations about academics that contribute to them feeling additional stress.
Unfortunately, the discussion was interrupted midway by a Zoom-bombing event. Several individuals with anonymous names joined the Zoom meeting, and took over screen sharing capabilities in order to display anti-AAPI propaganda. It was evident that they aimed to disrupt the event and intimidate attendees, with the goal of bringing the discussion to a premature end. Luckily, the unfortunate incident was quickly remedied and resolved by the organizers of the event. As the event attendees processed the incident, Mohan and Chung were quick to offer words of support, opening up the conversation to include thoughts about acts of hate like this one. As students shared that they had experienced similar zoom-bombing events in different spaces, Dr. Kim noted that identity-based events like this one are often targeted like this, and that the AAC would be more than willing to offer support and resources to process this incident and prevent it from happening again.
It was heartening to see students sharing their experiences of similar incidents and reaching out to offer support to each other. As Chung and Mohan began a discussion about hate incidents at UNC, including the attack on the Campus Y building last year, students shared ways that they have coped with these incidents. A student attendee shared that such attacks can be frightening and disheartening, but that the power of standing together with your community cannot be understated. Attendees also discussed the removal of Silent Sam at UNC several years ago, and how that reinforced a sense of vulnerability for POC on campus. Graffiti, vandalism, leaflets, and Zoom-bombing all fall into a pattern of hateful attacks over the past several years at UNC, which can be really hard to weather, but solidarity with a community of POC at UNC is essential and powerful enough to overcome these.
As I reflect on the conversations that we had during this event, I am left in awe by the resilience and sense of tight-knit community that the AAC is fostering at UNC. Faced by unique challenges and discriminatory events, Asian American students at UNC have craved the sense of community that the AAC now provides. Throughout this event, students and faculty reiterated the fact that conversations on these topics of AsAm mental health are highly important and necessary, and that this event provided a much-needed platform for them. In the future, I look forward to seeing more platforms that the AAC provides for Asian American students at UNC to continue having these conversations. I also hope that we can protect these platforms from hateful actions like Zoom-bombing by enhancing the security of both virtual and physical meeting spaces. We need to have greater transparency in the way that we address hateful actions, and make sure that we address them on the university level. In this case, there was public discussion and good support from the university administration, including a private message from the Chancellor to attendees. In such events, balancing the need to inform the community while also not providing more publicity for those committing such attacks is an important consideration.
I know that the Asian American community at UNC will grow from the experiences we’ve had, both positive and negative, and believe that despite hateful actions, we remain steadfast, supportive, and connected to each other. By making these identity-based events more safe and protected while also maintaining a culture of openness and acceptance, I hope that we can foster more discussions like this in the future.
Gargi Dixit is a student-researcher in bioinformatics and oncology who is looking forward to exploring her interests in the health humanities through HHIVE. She was introduced to the health humanities through a reading group called Narratives in Medicine at UNC, where she learned a lot about health inequities and the history of healthcare in the US through the texts discussed. She’s interested in narrative medicine and in exploring how different cultural backgrounds influence healthcare experiences and outcomes. As a birth doula, she hopes to integrate her volunteer experiences with her work at HHIVE.