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Democrats in Congress reintroduce bill to break down mental health stigmas among Asian Americans

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have faced

Democratic lawmakers reintroduced a bill on Wednesday aimed at breaking down the persistent stigmas associated with mental health in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.  

The legislation, first shared with NBC News, coincides with the final day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Called the Stop Mental Health Stigma in Our Communities Act, it would instruct the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to partner with local advocacy and behavioral health organizations to provide outreach and education strategies.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, known collectively as AANHPI, have faced "a growing mental health crisis in recent years, including increasing deaths by suicide of AANHPI youth,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif, who introduced the bill in 2016 and is among several lawmakers re-introducing it.

“As the only psychologist currently serving in Congress, I know how critical it is to remove the barriers attached to seeking mental health care as well as reduce the stigma and raise awareness of mental health issues."

The bill — which is being re-introduced in the House by Chu and Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., and in the Senate by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii — would additionally instruct the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to conduct research and collect disaggregated data on mental health among Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander youths and behavioral health providers. So far, it’s received support from dozens of groups, including the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and Empowering Pacific Islander Communities.

Lawmakers pointed to statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that showed these communities had the lowest rates of mental health service use across all racial groups. Among 10 to 24 year olds, Asian Pacific Islanders were the only racial group in that age bracket in which suicide was the leading cause of death from 2018 to 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But seeking mental health help has historically been a contentious and taboo subject among these communities. Dr. Warren Ng, the medical director of outpatient behavioral health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, previously told NBC News that cultural factors remain strong barriers to treatment. The concept of losing face or bringing shame to family and community, a fear that’s universal across many Asian cultures, can heavily affect many Asian Americans’ decision to get help. And internalized racism in immigrant communities often compound issues.

“There’s such an acceptance that ‘we’re going to be treated this way anyway, so get over it — instead of being bitter, be better,’” Ng said. “It’s always a concept of ‘we’ve already accepted that this is our fate, that we don’t have it any better. We are not equals.’”

Many others, particularly the children of immigrants, often feel a “thriver’s guilt,” said Sahaj Kohli, the therapist behind the organization Brown Girl Therapy. 

“It’s almost like mental health impostor syndrome,” Kohli previously said. “We are convinced that our parents and our elders went through something worse, so therefore our struggles don’t feel as valid.”

Hirono emphasized the importance of involving community groups given the vast barriers keeping the community from accessing critical mental health care. 

 “Establishing a community-informed national outreach and education strategy is critical to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health care in AANHPI communities,” she said in a press release.