Feb 25, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Schools unprepared to help Asian American students navigate racial trauma

Illustration of an Asian student walking with shadows of hands pointing towards them.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The first two months of the year have left Asian Americans reeling as they attempt to reconcile their reality with a seemingly unending string of violence — and many are homing in on the lack of mental health care available to some of their most vulnerable.

The big picture: Amid recent high-profile attacks and the larger surge in anti-Asian hate, young Asian Americans — for whom the leading cause of death was suicide even prior to the pandemic — are calling on schools to invest in the sustained mental health resources they need to cope.

Why it matters: Asian Americans have had to live in fear for the past three years as anti-Asian violence skyrocketed. The community was left on edge again last month after a white woman repeatedly stabbed an Asian college student in Indiana. She told police she targeted the student because she was Chinese, according to an affidavit obtained by Axios.

  • Mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, though perpetrated by Asian men according to police, also dealt a heavy blow to people's sense of security.
  • "That's not one incident I have to heal from, like a car accident," psychologist Helen Hsu told Axios. "This is a constant source of stress and trauma. And there's a lot less skill about how to cope and survive and stay resilient in the face of that."

By the numbers: A 2021 report published by the anti-bullying nonprofit Act to Change found that 70% of Asian Americans surveyed reported experiencing or witnessing an increase in cyberbullying in 2020.

  • "There's a lot of stuff that just goes under the table," said James Lam, a sophomore at Ayala High School in California. Students might make a racist comment or "joke," but it'll go ignored while "people just move on with their lives."

Yes, but: That hasn't always spurred schools to proactively coordinate mental health support for students — or even acknowledge anti-Asian hate, several students tell Axios.

Driving the news: Lam said his school has not released any statements condemning the recent stabbing or shootings even though Monterey Park is just a dozen miles from where they live. He also couldn't recall a time when school administrators offered counseling to Asian students.

  • "The recent attacks, if anything, are more of a reminder that these things are still going on and that they need to be addressed," Lam told Axios. "This is not a thing of the pandemic. It's not a thing of the past. It's still happening today."
  • While teachers might mention anti-Asian hate in a current events discussion, school administrators rarely acknowledge how racial violence impacts students' daily lives, said Rohan Lokanadham, a senior at Biotechnology High School in New Jersey.

State of play: Symptoms of distress can look different among Asian Americans, according to Hsu. Instead of acting out, Asian students are more likely to "act in," or internalize their behaviors.

  • "We self-harm. We quietly continue to do our homework, even though we're super depressed or anxious. We act out inside the house, but it never shows outside the house," she noted.
  • "So this system of schools has ... always been like, 'Oh, you're good, you're fine.'"

What they're saying: Incorporating culturally sensitive models of care — such as partnerships with Asian-serving community organizations — is a first step many districts can take, according to Betina Hsieh, an education professor at California State University, Long Beach.

  • The responsibility is on teachers and administrators to educative themselves, noted Act to Change co-founder Maulik Pancholy.
  • "Knowing how to support [a] child, knowing how to support [their] family, understanding the language, understanding the family dynamics and working from that angle" is key in supporting students, said Mary Her, a senior clinical supervisor at the Amherst Wilder Foundation.

The bottom line: "A lot of this bullying, harassment starts when you're younger, and it's often in schools," said Mina Fedor, a College Preparatory School student who founded a youth-led AAPI advocacy group after feeling frustrated about the lack of visibility around the issue.

  • "That can definitely be prevented with the proper resources and education and training ... That's really why schools need to step up."
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