As every year, the senior service agency Self-Help for the Elderly in San Francisco marks the Lunar New Year by offering its mostly Asian-American customers good news, special pastries and traditional red envelopes with wishes for good health, peace and prosperity.
But this year’s mood was marred by Saturday’s massacre in Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian-American community near Los Angeles, where 11 elderly people — ranging in age from 57 to 76 — were fatally shot in a dance hall. Anni Chung, the organization’s CEO, said she is concerned about the mental and emotional impact of the shooting on her seniors.
“Like everyone else, they are glued to any kind of news about the massacres, and that in itself is not healthy,” she said. “I’m afraid if they don’t take themselves away, it’s all going to sink in and they’re going to be very sad and very scared.”
In the wake of the tragedy and several years of collective trauma endured by the Asian American community, Chung and other advocates said they are concerned that recent mass shootings and attacks are causing mental health trauma for many Asian Americans. And they fear that many people who need it most will not seek help or access proper care.
Many Asian Americans struggle with mental health issues
Saturday’s frenzy came as Monterey Park celebrated its first Lunar New Year celebration since before the pandemic. A second mass shooting on Monday killed seven people in Half Moon Bay, California, compounding the trauma. The victims were identified as Latino and Asian American farm workers.
On Twitter, U.S. Representative Grace Meng, D-New York, wondered if a better mental health system could have prevented the violence.
“We don’t know the motives yet, but I wonder how things could have been different if there had been a strong mental health and social services network,” Meng wrote. “Yes, it’s about gun safety laws, yes it’s about stopping Asian hate, but also a generation of #AAPI seniors with lives of untouched trauma.”
Charissa Cheah, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said research shows that mental well-being can be harmed by both personally experienced violence and violence experienced vicariously through the media or otherwise. With both rising for Asian Americans in recent years, the collective mental health of the community has suffered, she said.
Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco-based organization created during the COVID-19 pandemic to combat and collect data on rising anti-Asian hatred, has collected more than 11,000 reports of anti-Asian-American and Pacific Islander violence. hate incidents since the such data March 2020.
Violence that hit the community included six Asian women killed in Atlanta spa attacks in March 2021 and four Sikhs killed along with four other victims in a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in April 2021 , as well as a series of viral videos showing Asian senior citizens being attacked for no reason on the city streets.
Asian Americans are unlikely to seek mental health care
According to a 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, compared to Americans of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, Asian Americans are the least likely to receive mental health treatment and are three times less likely than their white counterparts.
Reasons include language difficulties, a lack of culturally relevant and integrated care, cultural stigmas associated with seeking mental health care, cost, and other systemic barriers. More than half of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders age 65 and older have limited English language skills, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and community members are less likely to seek help for fear of what neighbors might think or to cause shame to their parents.
“The stigma against mental health, high financial costs and a shortage of mental health professionals with language and cultural expertise are just a few of the many barriers to accessing mental health care,” said Cheah. “These barriers were there before the pandemic, but the need for such services and the workload for mental health providers has increased exponentially.”
Language barriers can keep Asian Americans from getting medical help
Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, an advocacy firm based in Los Angeles, said the stigma among Asian Americans around mental health care reflects attitudes more widely felt by the general population.
“There’s more than just stigma, there are issues around accessibility,” Kulkarni said. “Most health plans have minimal mental health coverage, and sometimes they outsource that to other entities. For those who speak limited English, how do they navigate that and the lack of culturally literate providers?”
Kulkarni, who also teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, said students had told her there were few, if any, Asian-American therapists on campus.
“They’re all older white women, and while they may have a good understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy, they have a very limited understanding of the problems students bring,” Kulkarni said. “When you have thousands of all-white providers who only speak English, that’s the barrier I’m concerned about.”
Some Asian Americans fear being targeted
At Self-Help for the Elderly, Chung said some of her clients had expressed fears about what they see as a gun-happy society and the societal pressures that affect the people in their communities. The organization has 10 senior centers in the California Bay Area.
“In general, our elders are afraid of someone attacking them unprovoked,” she said. “They feel like they haven’t hurt anyone – so why are they being beaten up, stabbed and killed?”
Over time, she said, such fears and self-imposed isolation can lead to depression and loss of appetite.
“That’s a real concern,” she said. “The lucky ones have senior centers or clubs, but those who may be disabled or frail, or who don’t have family support, are isolated. If they don’t get in touch and aren’t linked to an existing program, it’s hard for us to know who and where they are.”
Mass shootings create feelings of trauma
Anne Saw, an associate professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, said when news of the Monterey Park shooting first broke, many in the community feared it was another act of anti-Asian racism.
“That speaks to its ubiquity, when the first thought is, ‘This has to be this,'” she said.
The gunman, identified as Huu Can Tran, 72, was found dead in a white van on Sunday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The discovery that the perpetrator was a Vietnamese-American offered little comfort.
“A mass shooting is a traumatic event, whether racially motivated or not,” Saw said.
Asian-American gunmen targeted members of the community
In a way, the fact that the suspect was Asian-American was more troubling, said Kulkarni, whose agency compiled a list of mental health and other resources available to the community after the Monterey Park shootings. While the crime was not anti-Asian in the traditional sense, it did target members of the community; the unsub knew it was Lunar New Year and knew that hundreds of people would be gone.
Before, “threats felt like they came from outside,” she said. “Now they feel like they’re coming from within.”
In the attacks in Half Moon Bay, the shooter was also Asian American. Chunli Zhao, 67, was taken into custody as a suspect in that crime.
‘No safe spaces’ for Asian Americans
Richelle Concepcion, former president of the Asian American Psychological Association, said there is a growing belief in some Asian American communities “that there really are no safe spaces for our communities,” she said. “Places that used to be a source of joy are now associated with immense sadness.”
Stop AAPI Hate issued a statement in the wake of the shootings, saying the incidents have exacerbated the pain, fear and trauma felt by the Asian-American community in recent years.
“We have long experienced multiple forms of hatred and violence, emanating from outside, within and between our communities,” the statement said. “The identity of the gunmen in both recent massacres does not, and should not, delegitimize or diminish our pain and fear. We do not know, and we may never know, the motivations behind these shootings. But unfettered access to guns turned both these acts of violence into massacres.”
Fighting back can improve mental health
Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said one bright spot is that the growing anti-Asian climate in recent years has pushed more people to address the issue, from local efforts such as chaperone services for seniors to bring wider pressures for social change. Such actions, he said, can also help address mental health issues.
“The community is pretty fierce about finding collective strength. And the collective strength allows it to bounce back and keep going,” he said.