In our Asian Americans Attaining Awareness podcast we’re observing May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. We’re taking this time of cultural recognition to look at connections between this community and the Hogg Foundation’s core concerns for mental health and health equity.

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In Episode 132 of Into the Fold, we speak with three representatives from the Asian Americans Attaining Awareness (AAAA) initiative to explore Asian American mental health in the context of shared collaborative effort: Dr. Aneela Khan, Community Behavioral Health Program Manager at the Asian American Health Coalition of Greater Houston HOPE Clinic; retired Colonel Vipin Kumar, Executive Director of the India House, a nonprofit community resource center in Houston; and Jason Lau, MPH, a project manager for DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston.

Asian Americans Attaining Awareness Collaborative

In 2019, the Hogg Foundation awarded the Asian American Health Coalition of the Greater Houston Area an $800,000 Communities of Care (COC) grant to form the Asian Americans Attaining Awareness (AAAA) collaborative. COC supports collaborative approaches to fostering resilience, mental health and well-being in the Houston area with a focus on children and youth of color and their families.

Aneela Khan works for Asian American Health Coalition HOPE Clinic, the lead organization for this multi-sector collaborative of 13 nonprofit service providers that includes the Chinese Community Center, Boat People SOS, VN TeamWork, Rohingya Society of Greater Houston, YMCA International, Future Beyond Charity, Culture of Health Advancing Together, Rabbani Foundation, Olive Branch Muslim Family Services, Patient Care Intervention Center, Ibn Sina Foundation, India House and the DePelchin Children’s Center.

“I have the honor of leading this collaborative that provides different kinds of services for the Asian community — meaning anybody who has ties to the continent of Asia, whether they are recent immigrants, first generation Asians, second generation Asians, and so on,” said Khan.

Starting the Conversation

Because mental health struggles are not often addressed in Asian and Asian American households, addressing stigma is central to the work of AAAA. Coalition members share a common goal of normalizing conversations around mental health and providing resources that support mental well-being.

“We have really high hopes that we will reach a point where things like this will be discussed openly in Asian community.” said Khan. “Where we have providers who are able to provide culturally competent behavioral health services and have more providers who are fluent in languages of Asian origin.”

Translating Across Cultures

Creating accessible informational materials was an early priority. While the coalition included native speakers of many languages, translation was still a challenge.

“[Translations] are not always about just language. There are things that different cultures feel about mental health,” says Jason Lau, a project manager for DePelchin Children’s Center. Lau notes the difficulty of translating mental health language and information without sacrificing meaning.

Complementary Contributions

In addition to their common focus on effective communication, organizations in the AAAA collaborative each provided targeted services, bringing unique contributions to the mental well-being of the Asian American community.

Founded in 1892, DePelchin Children’s Center is a backbone institution in the Houston community. Under Lau’s guidance, they have helped educate the collaborative on mental health topics such as trauma-informed services, evidence-based programming, and mental health first-aid. DePelchin’s expertise in program evaluation and quality assessment also allows for helpful feedback on how effectively AAAA’s service providers are achieving their goals.

India House functions as a multi-faceted community center. It offers a wide variety of services, including food distribution, family and immigration law consulting, fitness classes, children’s art classes and technology classes for seniors.

“My belief is that mental health can be strengthened by offering a ‘helping hand’,” said retired Colonel Vipin Kumar, executive director of India House,

Personal Connections

DePelchin’s contributions to this collaborative are also deeply personal to Lau. As a Chinese American raised in America by parents who immigrated from abroad, he knows first-hand that the culture and language gap with parents and the desire to be accepted by American peers can create a lot of internal conflict for young Asian Americans.

“I see this collaborative as really important because it helps [families] start those conversations [about mental health and well-being] and reduce some of the stigma in that area,” says Lau.

The Model Minority Myth

Khan expands on the behavioral health challenges faced by Asian families, often worsened by the ‘The Model Minority Myth’,” and on how the Asian American Health Coalition HOPE Clinic offers help.

“Asians are viewed as the model minority,” she says. “But are they actually?”

As in all families, Asian Americans families struggle with stressful issues surrounding education, finances, and family conflict. Unfortunately, the Model Minority Myth adds to the likelihood that these families will not discuss or seek services for resulting mental health struggles.

“We see Asian youth who have experienced suicide in the home, which is never discussed [by the family] again,” says Khan. The HOPE Clinic provides a way for Asian youth to discuss challenging issues such as having an autistic sibling, or emotional neglect, that are treated as taboo by their families.

Impact of COVID-19

The strong anti-Asian sentiment that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic also heightened Lau’s understanding of the need for resources that address the Asian community’s mental health.

 “Young or old, I think there is a need to have resources that address our mental health needs because, just like [physical] health, [mental health] comes and goes…. Throughout our lives, we need to have this normalizing conversation about what it means to be mentally well, says Lau.

A Collaborative Journey

Having helped start the conversation around mental health and well-being in Houston’s Asian and Asian American community, the thirteen member organizations of AAAA that include the DePelchin Children’s Center, India House and the Asian American Health Coalition HOPE Clinic continue their collaborative work to raise awareness, reduce stigma and provide behavioral health services to this community.

“This collaborative has given all of us an opportunity to discuss [mental health issues that have] been pushed under the carpet for a long time,” said Khan. “It has been a journey of realization for us, reflections on challenges, and of course successes.”

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