On Countering the Individualization of Mental Illness through Community Resilience
by: Elise Yoon
Content warning: suicide, mental illness
On December 8, 2021 at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, Hong Fook Mental Health Association hosted a movie screening of Hong Kong-based film, Mad World. The event was a fundraiser for Hong Fook and an opportunity to have a conversation about mental illness within our dynamic, multicultural Asian communities. We all know talking about mental illness is important and necessary. This need to talk about it is a movement that has been on the cultural rise through campaigns like #BellLetsTalk. But what exactly is it that we need to talk about?
There is a particular way Bell strategically falls into campaigning for mental health, where they are preoccupied with sputtering about the need to raise awareness all the while not actually talking about anything.
A corporation has made a whole campaign dedicated to repeating “Let’s talk” over and over without actually saying the word, “illness”. So when I was invited to Hong Fook’s event, I looked forward to a space where it would be possible to talk about mental illness seamlessly with a conversation on cultures, life experiences, and socio-political systems.
The bigger picture is relevant. People are multidimensional and no strand of our lives can be examined on its own as if to make up the whole. This is especially the case for mental illness, where people are seen and defined by their diagnosis. We need to shift away from patting ourselves on the back for lending our pity to suffering individuals to critically examining what we actually mean by “mental wellness” in a society that defines normative behaviour, thought, and way of being through white, western logic and values. What are the wellness behaviours we’re referring to? How should people act? How does de-stigmatization actually look like? Does it look like allowing for paid days off when you can’t get out of bed, or does it look like treatment for ill people who are not complying by a norm to maintain the regimens of a productive, economically prosperous society?
How can we talk about mental illness without the context of an oppressive, unlivable system that exploits the lives of disabled, queer, femme people of colour? We cannot begin to chisel at the conversation on mental health without also talking about raising the minimum wage, advocating for more social housing, believing survivors, eliminating anti-Blackness, decolonizing our education system, decolonizing our food system, decolonizing our political system. This conversation is a social, political problem. We need to consider how access to care, resources, and a support system change the experience or even existence of mental illness from individual to individual. We need to address how mood disorders, trauma, stress, and emotional hardship mound with experiences like migration, poverty, and abuse. We have to stop relying on a system that only catches people as they fall.
This is why we need organizations like Hong Fook Mental Health Association. They provide specialized mental health care to Asian communities with ethno-cultural factors and life barriers in mind. The experiences of mental distress, trauma, and illness are not simply “chemical imbalances in the brain” despite popular claims to legitimize and normalize the experience on par with physical illness. While these experiences no doubt take place in the body and are not essentially socially-rooted, the effects of marginalization on the mind is a significant part of the conversation.
Particular to Asian communities is a decline of the “healthy immigrant effect”, which is a phenomenon in which immigrants to Canada hold above average health compared to those born in Canada, but experience a decline with increased years in Canada. East Asians are also subject to the model minority myth, which can work to erase and silence Asian struggle.
The Star reports on a study by Hong Fook which found that 19 percent of Asian youth have felt in the past year that they’d be better off dead, and 12 percent had seriously considered suicide. A CAMH study found a pattern among Chinese Canadian women with “stoic endurance” and lack of support through their stress (often immigration-related), which would then lead to thoughts of suicide. All of which is why, in a cold evening in December, the space we carved out in North York was a necessary moment to foster discussion and collective resilience within our communities.
The film Mad World was followed by a panel discussion on mental health as it impacts the particular role of caregiving, in theme with the main character of the film whose trauma and bipolar disorder are tangled with caring for his ill and verbally abusive mother. It is important to note that the film depicted a man, despite the role of caregiving and emotional labour being a woman’s social expectation and reality. On the panel were community members Carmen Gao, who spoke of being a mother to a son with depression, and Yoora Kim, who grew up in an unsafe home environment where she often found herself in a caregiving role for her parents. On the panel were also Dr. Ted Lo, the Clinical Director of Asian Community Psychiatric Clinic and Bonnie Wong, Executive Director of Hong Fook Mental Health Association.
There was incredible resilience in the room. I resonated with mentions of the unutterable familial love powered through trauma that I don’t believe can be put into words for a white audience.
Experience is tangled up in identity; the two are indistinguishable and one. There was incredible knowledge in the room. On coping, on forgiving. On staying hopeful in a world built against you.
It was a radically resilient thing to gather as Asians and speak openly and publicly about mental illness in our communities with one another. There are not many spaces that allow this to be possible, both in white-dominant conversations on mental health and in the silences within our own communities. However vital it was, I must note the space that evening was a door opening, not an arrival. Ahead of us is unimaginable work. We have a lot to interrogate and unlearn from our internalized ideas of wellness and success rooted in colonial, capitalist values. A lot to listen and learn from young people, and from folks who suffer and fight and survive daily.
Until we do, until we listen, learn, unlearn and advocate, we will remain pushing our loved ones into assimilating into an ableist, inaccessible world that cannot fit us any longer.
About Hong Fook Mental Health Associations (HFMHA)
Established in 1982, Hong Fook Mental Health Association is the only ethno-cultural community mental health agency in Ontario serving Asian Communities with a continuum of services. Hong Fook is dedicated to keeping people mentally healthy and managing mental illness from recovery to wellness through promotion and prevention, treatment, capacity building and advocacy. Please find more information at www.hongfook.ca
Elise Yoon is a writer, community organizer, and a poetry editor of LooseLeaf Magazine. When not working with LooseLeaf, she coordinates a youth mental health program and sits on the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council.