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  • Writer's pictureSharon Chan, LMFT

Being an Asian American in a Western Mental Health World.

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

I am a licensed mental health therapist. A client in my own therapy. I am also Asian American. I am an Asian American person in a Western mental health world . I am passionate about mental health and have spent a lot of time and energy studying, learning, training, and growing personally in these areas. I am also very passionate about Asian Americans and mental health. I recognize I come from a singular lens regarding my experience and perspective and I do not represent all Asian Americans. In fact, even within the Asian American cultures we all have differences. After numerous conversations with colleagues, family members, and friends, and my personal experiences, I have a growing passion to be a louder voice with my experience as an Asian American in mental health. I hope that my experience can build increased awareness and stronger collaboration. It's easy to fall into the "us versus them," but then that misses the point of this blog. The point is to care for each culture no matter where we come from while giving one perspective of the Asian American experience in a Western mental health world.


These are things I would want our mental health world to know as we work with Asian and Asian Americans in mental health.

  1. Topics like enmeshment, differentiation, and codependency can be helpful and/or shameful at the same time but without understanding the cultural context it may not be helpful to the individual. Being an Asian American, I was taught that my family unit is where my identity derived. I represent not only myself but my family. Of course that brings up complex questions: Where is that line of independence versus "us?" Do I disrespect my family in order to follow my own agenda, needs, wants? How do I honor my family, my values, my attachments, and still be me? I don't believe that words like enmeshment, differentiation and codependency are bad or necessarily harmful. But I do believe understanding what that means to the person and how to honor and respect their values through a cultural lens is an important part of the equation and that may often look very different from another. The projection of independence, self sufficient, and even dependence can be extremely influenced by the cultural lens of a person's world.


2. "Please know that I might have fought a variety of deeply ingrained messages and barriers to even reach out," an Asian American might say. When I hear of Asian Americans reaching out for mental health services, I do a happy dance inside. This is the not the case for everyone but in some cases reaching out for mental health help can be a first time event. There can be individual, family, and communal implications to what that might mean for the individual. It takes strength to show up and reach out. Understanding and learning about that initial step can be crucial to build relationship and a greater cultural awareness of the bravery it took. It could be the first time in that person's family history and generationally that that person is seeking mental health services. This is huge!


3. As an Asian American, I was often taught to respect experts, elders, and others who have greater expertise than I which means there already maybe an invisible power dynamic between us. Recognizing that this maybe the case in the therapy room or in interactions can be helpful. The awareness that this value instilled in the cultural context comes from a place of honor and respect but also can cause a power dynamic which may impact an individual's feelings of safety, being themselves, or feeling like they are on equal footing as the mental health professional.


4. "Having a voice and talking about my feelings while being emotionally responded to in a way that I need maybe an entirely different experience for me. I might need a lot of space to do so," was often the experience for me. The greatest people and therapists I have encountered were those that have taken the time to truly listen, given me space to vocalize myself with safety, and empowered me to take action. It's not truly even what these people have said but it's the manner in holding the safe and respectful space to do so. It's the pacing, the timing, and space of allowing a person to build and empower their own voice. Understanding the possible power dynamics and cultural expectations is an important part of building that safety and rapport.


What about you? If you are Asian American what are some things that you have found helpful or not helpful to be aware of in understanding the culture and mental health? If you are a mental health professional what has been a helpful way to understand the Asian culture in the work?

Again, each culture has its value and importance. I want to give a louder voice to mine in the context of mental health to hopefully support, empower and collaborate with others.

Disclaimer: This information is being provided to you for educational and informational purposes only. It is not psychotherapy or counseling. This information is to be used based on your own judgment. If you need to speak with a professional, you should find one local to you and contact them directly.

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