Less than a month after Michelle Go was pushed to her death at New York’s Time Square train station, another member of New York’s Asian community was murdered in her Chinatown apartment: Christina Yuna Lee, a creative producer at Splice who dedicated her career to making inclusive art (NYTimes, Splice).
Since the pandemic’s onset in early 2020, Asian people have been targets of escalated violence and hate crimes. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 338% in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities compared to last year (NBC News). And from March 19, 2020, to September 30, 2021, nearly 10,400 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) were reported (Stop AAPI Hate).
For example, Yuna Lee’s attacker, Assamad Nash, had a history of mental health issues and homelessness (The City). Several of these attacks have been committed by people with a history of mental illness, underscoring this country’s broken mental health system.
The current system cannot support and reach people with a history of mental health illnesses. People living with mental health illnesses are not inherently violent, but some may not have committed violent acts if they could access mental health care. Additionally, people in crisis still operate under racist and sexist belief systems, influencing who they target. People in non-normative states of mind still chose to attack women of color instead of white men.
New York diversion centers, supposed to connect people with mental health issues with services instead of arrests, remain empty or barely used despite the city’s $100 million investment (The City). The New York State Senate and Assembly voted last April to eliminate 200 inpatient mental health treatment beds, despite cutting more than 20% of inpatient beds in the past seven years (CNY Central). People with severe mental disorders are three times more likely to be incarcerated in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility (Health Affairs). The carceral environment can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder (Prison Policy Initiative).
Problems with the U.S. mental health system don’t just harm Asian American communities because people with untreated mental illnesses have been among anti-Asian attackers. These problems also prevent Asian people from accessing mental health treatment themselves, though the need for AAPI mental health support has surged since the rise in anti-Asian hate.
Asian Americans are neglected by U.S. federal mental health policy. The 1963 Community Mental Health Centers (CMHC) Act made mental health services more accessible to Asian Americans and other people of color. Its repeal in 1981 forced community mental health centers to close, leaving Asians and other people of color without care in their communities (Asian American Journal of Psychology).
In the 1980s, mental health care policy shifted from a need-based public policy to one focused on the quality of services for those who could afford mental health care. New policies failed to consider the mental health needs of underserved groups, including Asians and Asian Americans. This neglect in policy has stemmed from three myths: that Asians are a small group, that they are a successful group without social issues or oppressions (Model Minority Myth), and that they do not suffer from mental health disparities (Asian American Journal of Psychology). None are true.
Today, AAPI mental health organizations are significantly underfunded. From 2001 to 2014, organizations serving Asian Americans only received 0.2% of funding from New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (Asian American Federation). There are fewer AAPI mental health providers, bilingual providers, and culturally competent therapists. This only compounds difficulty with access to treatment for AAPI individuals (APA).
AAPI people seeking mental health treatment also face stigma because some Asian cultures associate these conditions with evil spirits, bad luck, and wrongdoings in a previous life (Western Journal of Medicine, Yes! Magazine). 77% of Asian Americans with mood disorders struggle to talk about their condition, compared to 69% of white people (NAMI).
Communities that need mental health care the most, including communities of color and people with a history of mental illness, poor people, and unhoused people, have been historically excluded from care. The mental health care system has not only failed vulnerable communities but AAPI elderly people and women, who are the most vulnerable to attacks and anti-Asian violence (The 19th).
The mental health system requires an investment in culturally-competent training, support for AAPI mental health providers, and reallocation of resources to community organizations to ensure that all historically excluded communities are able to seek and access zero-to-low-cost, culturally-competent, and linguistically-competent mental health care.
• Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 338% in major cities.
• Some of the violence underscores the need for better mental health care access.
• The surge in anti-Asian violence has taken a toll on the AAPI mental health, increasing the need for mental health care among the community.