San Gabriel resident and community organizer Brittney Au is tired and angry.
On Jan. 21, a Saturday night, Au had just come home from celebrating the Lunar New Year weekend with friends, when news broke that a gunman targeted a dance studio near where she lives in Monterey Park, killing 11 people.
When asked if she was OK, Au, 31, said she “doesn’t know how to answer that question.”
“It’s exhausting, mentally, physically, socially,” Au said. “I feel hopeless, helpless and powerless every time I hear about a new incident or attack. This hit so close to home.”
After mass shootings in Monterey Park and, just two days later, Half Moon Bay, which involved both Asian victims and shooters, Au and many others in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community were left shaken.
They’ve already faced waves of anti-Asian hate crimes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve been healing from the 2021 shooting spree at Asian spas in Atlanta, a 2022 targeted attack on a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods and countless other incidents that have gone unreported or did not receive national attention.
AAPI people nationwide are sick of feeling targeted and unsafe in their own neighborhoods.
In Southern California and beyond, more AAPI organizations and individuals are doing something to address these fears – starting with talking about them. It’s this community’s way of fighting back while still allowing themselves to process and grieve.
“None of it makes sense – more members of our community are dying for no reason,” said Au, who co-founded the San Gabriel Valley-based nonprofit Compassion in SGV in 2021.
Days after the shooting, Au and local organizers put together a candlelight vigil in front of the Star Dance Ballroom Studio, where the Monterey Park shooting happened, so that the community can come together to mourn the lives lost and “begin to heal.”
The Jan. 25 vigil included speakers on mental health, multilingual prayers and solemn music to remember the victims. Au said it was a healing, safe space for AAPIs and other community members to come together, “surrounded by those who collectively feel our frustrations, our sadness and our grief” and not feel alone.
AAPIs and mental health
About 2.7 million AAPIs struggle with a mental illness or substance use disorder, according to a report by the American Psychiatric Association. Compared to other populations, Asian people are less likely to seek out or receive mental health treatment, data from the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association shows – and even then, they’ll often seek help only when in crisis.
In traditional Asian cultures, the concept of mental health can be seen as “too Western” or taboo, experts say. Seeking professional help, like therapy, or talking openly about struggles and feelings is often stigmatized in families, especially among older generations.
In 2020, just 20.8% of Asian adults with a mental illness received professional treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Some factors that can prevent Asians from seeking help include language barriers, lack of education, insufficient insurance, immigration status or limited access to culturally appropriate providers.
Yvonne Liu from Rancho Palos Verdes, who speaks and writes on mental health, said that shame and the “desire to save face” plays a role in the cultural stigma faced by AAPIs.
“For Asians, there’s this collective social structure. We just strive and strive to succeed on paper … instead of attending to our whole self, our emotional and mental health,” Liu said. “What you do affects your relatives. So if you’re mentally ill, you’re bringing shame upon them. You can’t feel. You can’t talk about domestic violence, but those things exist. You can’t show that you’re vulnerable, imperfect.”
Though there is no motive known yet for the massacre in Monterey Park, mental health experts believe that 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, the gunman who later took his own life, could have struggled in isolation.
“Many Asian Americans have experienced trauma and may suffer from complex PTSD. Because of shame, I struggled for years before I sought help,” said Liu. “My late adoptive mother, who had suffered a severe mental illness, did not receive the help she desperately needed. Everyone in the family suffered as a result.”
Mental health across generational divides
Koreatown resident Carrie Zhang was celebrating Lunar New Year with her parents when she read about the Monterey Park shooting. She was “visibly distressed” and said she gently broke the news to her parents.
At first, they were quiet. Then, Zhang said, her father launched into theories about possible motives, and as he learned details, he looked at the shooting as an isolated interpersonal incident that did not affect the community as a whole.
“There was sort of the, ‘Let me take myself out of this narrative. Let me make it somebody else’s problem and not mine,’” Zhang said. “Whereas I and other folks in my generation would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s affecting all of us.’”
Zhang is the founder of the Asian Mental Health Project, a nonprofit that addresses this generational disconnect through multimedia resources, financial support and community events.
As more anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported, the group – which sees participants ranging from young adults to folks in their 40s – gets “a lot of demand to host some sort of processing space,” Zhang said. So in the wake of the recent mass shootings, the organization started community healing sessions, where people can connect virtually with psychologists and therapists at no cost.
It’s a place where people can check in with themselves and others, Zhang said. People across different generations have discussions on mental health and are “breaking the cycle of trauma for all of us,” Zhang said.
For immigrants, lasting trauma can stem from painful memories of leaving home, plus decades-long instances of xenophobia, discrimination and racist laws against Asian people in the U.S., Zhang said. Also, stereotypes like “the yellow peril” (Asians are viewed as dangerous to the Western way of life) and “model minority myth” (Asians are viewed as law-abiding, model citizens) are especially harmful to first- and later generations.
“Unhealed wounds and unhealed trauma can lead to cycles of violence,” Zhang said. “One thing my dad does mention is the betrayal he felt about immigrating to the U.S. You are promised this beautiful land that you can build your new life in. But the unfortunate truth is that it is just as discriminatory, just as prejudiced, just as violent and scary as the lands in which they grew up.”
Yuki Shida, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Tustin, called it “acculturation stress” in older generations.
“The trauma of leaving their home country and then trying to emigrate and understand a whole new language, a whole new government and economy system,” Shida said. This “can cause stressors within the family structure,” clashing generations and differing values, Shida said.
Internalized trauma across generations creates “this feeling of needing to hold it all in,” said Shida. Expressing emotions is also nuanced, not quite direct, in older generations, Shida said, and showing any signs of disinterest, withdrawing socially or the inability to do basic tasks like eating or getting out of bed could indicate a deeper issue.
Traumatic incidents like gun violence and hate crimes can also make people feel “hesitant” and want to withdraw from others – or “in this case question their own community, since (the gunman) was Asian American,” said Dr. Lisa Pion-Berlin, an Inland Empire-based hypnotherapist who works with families through Parents Anonymous.
The multilingual national hotline connects people anonymously with trained counselors and has assisted mentally distressed seniors across the state and nationwide. Five percent of all of Parents Anonymous’ helpline calls are AAPI clients, Pion-Berlin said.
“We can’t define their trauma, but we can support them,” said Pion-Berlin.
AAPI mental health resources and organizations
- Chinatown Service Center – Provides medical, dental, and behavioral healthcare; case management and social services. In-person and telehealth services are available in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Chiu Chow and Toisanese. 213-808-1720
- Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers – Services in LA County and the Inland Empire are available in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Thai and Spanish. 626-248-1800
- Pacific Asian Counseling Services – Provides culturally sensitive and language-specific mental health and other services. Renewal Spaces program offers multilingual listening sessions after traumatic events in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Khmer, Vietnamese and Tagalog. 310-259-7604
- Special Services for Groups – Non-profit organization with programs for older adults. 213-553-1800
- St. Mary Medical Center – Families in Good Health – Mental health, education, home visitation, case management and support groups in English, Spanish and Khmer. 562-491-9100
- Search to Involve Pilipino Americans – Serves Historic Filipinotown and other neighborhoods throughout LA County with multilingual mental health services including 1-on-1 family counseling, support groups, community training and wellness workshops for those impacted by trauma, hate incidence and/or violence. www.sipacares.org
- South Asian Network – Provides mental and emotional health services in Hindi, Pashto and English. 562-403-0488
- Pacific Clinics – California’s largest community-based nonprofit provider of behavioral and mental health support. 877-722-2737
- Asian Pacific Family Center – Provides Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Spanish language mental health family services in the San Gabriel Valley. 626-287-2988
- APFC-East/Multicultural Family Center – Has linguistic and culturally responsive prevention and clinical services to families in the San Gabriel Valley. 626-839-0300
- Asian Mental Health Collective – Directory of AAPI therapists in the U.S. and Canada. email@example.com
- Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health – 800-854-7771
- Garfield Health Center in Monterey Park – Immediate consultation and support for victims and families who need mental health assistance. 626-300-9980
- Herald Christian Health Center – Cantonese and Mandarin counselors trained in trauma-informed care and therapy. 626-313-9922
- Yellow Chair Collective – Trauma-informed therapy sessions in English and Mandarin Chinese are at no cost to those who have been directly affected by the Monterey Park tragedy. firstname.lastname@example.org, 213-222-8402
- Anise Health – AAPI therapists paired with coaches to provide culturally responsive mental health treatment. email@example.com
A compiled list of resources for mass shooting victims and community members — including for mental health, legal aid, victims of domestic violence and anti-Asian hate — is available through the AAPI Equity Alliance.