Last week I attended a keynote titled “Mental Health in the Age of Trump” put on by the Asian / Pacific Islander American Studies program. I went in expecting to learn more about the way in which Americans look at mental health and how it is evolving under the Trump administration. While I did learn a little about this, I ended up learning much more about the mental health of Asian Americans and the evolution of how we as a society have defined mental health. Mimi Khúc, University of Maryland Professor of Asian American Studies, was the keynote speaker and gave a captivating presentation.

The first part of the presentation focused on the different ways we define mental health and how some are questioning these definitions now more than ever. Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Prominent figures like Khúc in the mental health field are starting to question this definition of mental health. One specific point that Khúc questions is the segment of the definition that suggests our health is likened to productivity. She doubts that mental illness is linked to our level of contribution to society. She also brought up a suggestion about mental health in our culture — when “sickness” due to mental health is seen as temporary, care for it will never become normalized within society. We need to start seeing care for mental health as a lifelong endeavor. People have good and bad times with their mental illness, but it is never completely absent.

A big part of Khúc’s presentation focused specifically on the mental health of second generation Asian Americans, where her area of expertise is at the University of Maryland. She discussed some of the experiences that her students, particularly those that are themselves second generation Asian Americans, have shared with her over time. They often report feeling very anxious out of the pressure they feel put on them to succeed. These students report feelings of depression and high levels of anxiety.

These kinds of feelings become even more dangerous when the students live in households where mental health is often not seen as an important issue and feel that they should be silent about their feelings. A lot of the time, the students talking to Khúc are talking about their mental health issues openly to someone for the first time. Anxiety and depression are also significant problems here at the University of Michigan. Students with mental health problems often feel their disorders are intensified by the high stress of being a student here, and a lot of these students are not satisfied with the mental health resources on campus. The University is working toward trying to fix this problem, and hopefully serious change comes sooner rather than later.

Khúc’s students also report that they are constantly trying to become more “American” and are caught between the culture of their ancestors and the one that they were born into. This problem has become even more difficult for some because of the emergence of the Trump administration. Khúc, like many, sees the Trump administration as a crystallization of what already existed in America. In Trump’s new sponsored health care plan, almost all coverage for mental health has been removed. Being a minority in America with mental health problems must be terrifying right now, especially if your parents are first generation immigrants. People often feel the need to “rage” or “hide” in this era, but we must fight in a calculated and intellectual way, Khúc said.

Khúc’s primary area of research is the mental health of Asian American mothers. She explores the issue of postpartum depression, and the extreme stress society places on mothers to be constantly happy while caring for their child. We don’t talk about how hard society makes motherhood, yet still the expectation for mothers is for them to be perfect. This is even harder for second generation minority Americans who have the added stress of deciding how hard they want to try to make their family unit “American” or stick to the values of their parents.

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