AFH Opinion - Stop Asian Hate, Support Asian Mental Health

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AFH Opinion

Stop Asian Hate, Support Asian Mental Health

In a year of fear, the mental health of AAPI athletes is more important than ever

by Rachel Chao, AFH Graduate Social Work & Public Health Intern

I am a truly terrible runner, but without fail, I continue to run. In the past, I have never hesitated to run through the streets wherever I am. I listen to my music, or my breath, and feel pride at each of the steps. Even at my slowest or after the worst run, I have always maintained a love to get out and go. 

But in the last year, my runs have been tinted with anxiety. I, and many other Asian-Americans, have felt an increased sense of fear. In response to racist rhetoric and fear-mongering, Asian and Pacific Islanders in America have been blamed for COVID-19 and targeted in attacks throughout the country. For us, it felt like every day on the news brought a new devastating and heartbreaking report: physical assaults on elders in Chinatowns across the country, online harassment with racial slurs, verbal abuse yelled at AAPIs on the street. It brought a collective grief and fear to a community. My friends, family, and I would check in with each other: have you already bought pepper spray? Are you walking with someone else so you’re not alone? Before the new Lunar Year in February, I wrote my grandfather an email. Please, I said, be safe. Please look out. He emailed me back saying that he would, and I shouldn’t worry too much over him. He told me that the Year of the Tiger would be good luck. 

Rachel and her dad running across the finish line of a running race.
Rachel and her dad cross the finish line of Run for the Water in Austin, TX

It feels fitting that this May will be both National Mental Health Awareness Month, and Asian-American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Research published in 2020 found that AAPI and mixed race athletes have higher risk of depression and suicidality than their white counterparts. Evidence also shows that AAPIs also have the lowest rate of seeking out support for mental health challenges when they need it, when compared to other racial/ethnic minorities. Additionally, we face a unique risk because of deeply-held cultural stigmas. Many Asian and Pacific Island cultures have a stigma against mental health concerns, seeing mental health challenges as trivial or dealt with through personal responsibility, which further isolates those who are suffering. 

In the last two years, these vulnerabilities have been paired with the rise in racist attacks. AAPI individuals have felt a rise of true fear and even violence – and athletes have been no exception to this. Sunisa Lee, Olympic gymnast, was pepper sprayed and yelled at with racist slurs while standing next to her car. Golfer and USA olympian Danielle Kang shared her experience of being told to go back to China (she’s Korean-American). Chloe Kim was subjected to online abuse with threats and slurs, and shared how her mental health detrimentally suffered. At all levels, Asian-American athletes have been at an increased risk for anxiety, hopelessness, and depression.

I cannot say if the Year of the Tiger has brought us the luck, prosperity, and protection that we collectively need. I cannot pretend that I don’t worry for Asian-Americans, especially elders like my grandfather. Our community is hurting, constantly between grief and anxiety. We deserve safety. We belong here. 

I laced up my sneakers today. I texted my dad, as is my habit now, that I would be going to run around my neighborhood. Be safe, he texted back. I felt the melancholy of fear for the first six blocks, then stopped at a light by a young Chinese-American family, with a 3 year old girl. She shyly smiled and waved at me. I waved back. 

The rest of my run, I thought of her and felt a ray of hope in my chest. I wanted the Year of the Tiger to be when the world became a little kinder.

If someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hotline 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) M-F 10am-8pm Eastern or info@nami.org.

AAPI Athlete Mental Health Fact Sheet & Resource Guide

Check out this infographic authored and compiled by Rachel Chao. Share it on social media or use our social media graphics to make your own post!