CAPA Held Mental Health Seminar
For many people, mental health is a difficult subject to approach. The “Hear Me Out” seminar was held to dispel this stigma and provide a forum for open dialogue on intergenerational emotional wellness. The seminar took place on Saturday, September 30 at the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center (CCACC), and was jointly organized by CAPA-MC and CCACC Pan-Asian Volunteer Health Clinic. Panelists include psychiatrists Dr. Justin Chen, Dr. Juliana Chen, Dr. Xiaoping Shao, and Ms. Huixing “Kate” Lu, Director of the Pan Asian Volunteer Clinic and Project Manager of Mental Health 360°. The seminar drew a wide audience from all parts of Montgomery County, including County Council member George Leventhal and director of Montgomery County’s Department of Human and Health Services Uma S. Ahluwalia.
After hosting a similar seminar last year, Dr. Xiaoping Shao, a clinical psychiatrist and the coalition chair of Mental Health 360, brought psychiatrists Dr. Justin Chen and Dr. Juliana Chen back for a similar talk. Both Justin and Juliana are psychiatrists and psychiatric instructors at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Justin also serves as Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry in Harvard Medical School, while Juliana specializes in adolescent psychiatry.
“I’ve encountered situations in Chinese-American families where some children are under a lot of stress and feel that parents don’t understand,” Dr. Shao said. “Parents get very angry that children don’t listen, so I think it’s really important to get both generations to understand each other.”
The moderator of the seminar, Isabella Yang, a junior at Winston Churchill High School expressed her take on mental health : “[Mental health] is something that affected me, and affects a lot of my friends, and it’s something I see every day,” she explained. “People never talk about it! You need to start discussion.”
Dr. Justin Chen and Dr.Juliana Chen both emphasize three key ideas in the seminar: emotional health, mental health, and, perhaps most strongly, communication. “I think part of what we see as therapists so often is that there’s so much love in these families but then it’s not communicated in the way that the other party can understand,” Dr. Justin Chen said.
Dr. Juliana Chen had a similar experience growing up: “I have two parents who love me very very much, but we never once talked about the things that worried me or that I was stressed about,” she said. “They made sure I went to school that I was eating well, that I got grades, but we didn’t have conversations about my feelings or my worries.”
Dr. Juliana Chen was one of the executive producers of the short film “Looking for Luke”, which she played for the audience during the seminar. Before beginning the movie, Juliana presented the audience with a few statistics: 1 in 5 people live with a mental health condition. 1 in 3 college students report that they feel so depressed they can’t function. Asians have higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, but are some of the least likely to seek treatment.
“Looking for Luke” is about a boy named Luke Tang who struggled with mental health and committed suicide during his sophomore year in college. His parents and friends were interviewed six months after his death, and were still much emotional. The film follows them as they uncover and try to understand Luke’s thoughts, revealing how so many Asian-American families are not aware of their child’s mental health.
Luke’s friends all thought he was a “perfect” kid and was going places. He was an accomplished violin player, had stellar grades and a curious nature, and attended Harvard. Yet, no one knew what was going on in his mind. He had started questioning existence and the meaning of life since fourth or fifth grade. In his later years, Luke became a Christian and continued to question the meaning of life. A few months before he committed suicide, he asked his high school friend why she believed in God, and then told her that he had attempted to kill himself.
His sudden death in the fall of 2015 surprised many people, including his friends and family. He left three notes: one to his family, one to a high school friend, and one to a college friend. Luke’s father is trying to understand his son’s thoughts and why he would end his own life by reading his journals and notes, while his mother does not understand why anyone would kill themselves.
When Luke’s parents realized the problem about mental health, they wanted to help the Asian-American parents and children by making this movie. They knew that many Asian-American families were not connecting or communicating with each other, and that they themselves did not know about Luke’s mental illness until he ended his life.
“It should never end in suicide because that’s a tragedy and suicide is preventable,” Justin explained. “But ultimately I would love it if people didn’t even have to land in my office, that people would be aware of these issues earlier and deal with them earlier, including having better supports.” said
The panelists explore some of the key contributors to stress, mental illness, and solutions. Asian American families, particularly first generation immigrant families, face tremendous pressure to succeed in school and in their careers. The definition of success often differs between immigrant parents and their native children. In addition, Asian American families display care and affection in a very different way. Effective and positive communication is the key to resolve the aforementioned inter-generational differences. In the battle of two cultures, “It’s even harder for some Asian-American families where you don’t speak the same language,” said Dr. Justin Chen. He further added that “The importance of connection and communicating in both kids and parents and families, knowing the importance and being able to talk about things, whatever those things might be. So listening to each other, kids feeling that they are being heard out, and parents too.”
Panelists also stressed that prevention and timely treatment are critical to suicide prevention. There is no question that when one is sick, one seeks the assistance of a medical doctor. Likewise, with mental illness, one should seek help from professionals should the symptom surfaces. In terms of prevention, the best solutions are sleep, a proper diet, and exercise. Exercise reverses hippocampal degeneration in the brain and stimulates nerves.
Through this seminar, many parents and students changed their perspectives on mental health. “I wanted people to get rid of their stigma,” Moderator Isabella Yang said. “I wanted people to become more open, to talk to their kids, for kids to talk to each other, and for parents to talk to each other.”
The seminar can be viewed in its entirety here: https://youtu.be/PHHBfnVptNo
By Jay Guan
Contributors: Rachel Li, Lucas, Grace, and Claire contributed to this report