On a typical sunny Southern California Sunday, 150 well-dressed men and women of various ages and backgrounds gathered at the gorgeous estate of Carolyn Elliott overlooking the sea in Palos Verdes. They were invited by Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) to an exclusive afternoon of art, music, gourmet food, and food for thought.
A picture of perfection: beautiful location, beautiful food, beautiful people.
The purpose of this May event during Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, however, was by no means intended to celebrate perfection. In fact, the goal was quite the opposite: Shedding light on mental health issues in Asian American communities — a topic that is often swept under the rug and seldom openly discussed or addressed.
Two Asian American young adults bravely presented personal stories about their experiences in dealing with mental health in hopes of helping others dealing with similar issues.
Alan Hino’s Story: From Despair to Hope
A tall young man with a friendly smile, Alan Hino, 31, introduces himself as “a typical Japanese American.”
“Growing up, I knew about putting the family first, and never bringing shame to the family.”
Hino tragically lost his father to alcoholism when he was three years old — an experience that haunted and deeply affected him as he grew into a young man.
In his early 20s, Hino was clinically diagnosed with severe depression. He suppressed his emotions and maintained an outwardly sunny disposition. He didn’t talk about his depression. He didn’t turn to his mother or his friends for help. “I bought into the idea of ‘Man up,’” Hino says.
“I was able to fool those closest to me.”
After three years of struggling with alcoholism and feeling overwhelmed with hopelessness, Hino hit rock bottom.
He was ready to end it all.
“I made the decision to take my own life. I began making all the preparations in secret.”
Hino choked up with emotion as he revealed this to the quiet crowd in Palos Verdes, some of whom gasped at his disclosure.
However, as Hino was preparing to end his life, he took one small step that would ultimately save him: He shared his pain and his plan with a cousin. “I would not be standing here with you today without her intervention,” he says.
And today, “I am becoming more comfortable with my emotions and struggles,” says Hino. He has learned that “it is OK to embrace and share your emotions. It is OK to reach out to others for help.”
Hino learned about LTSC and quickly made new friends when he attended a pop-up art gallery hosted by the organization’s Changing Tides program, a youth-driven effort to de-stigmatize mental health issues.
Hino now wants to pay it forward and be the “kind stranger” who reaches out to others in need, in order to prevent other tragedies. “I will gladly listen if you need someone to talk to,” he says.
“There is hope, and it does get better, but it’s a huge step from acknowledging that and going forward.”
Hino’s story is just one of many that are often kept in the dark. According to statistics provided by Dr. Koko Nishi, a psychologist at San Diego State University:
• In general, Asian Americans report fewer mental health conditions than their white counterparts, but Asian American young adults ages 15 to 24 and females 65 and older are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.
• Asian American college students have higher rates of endorsing suicidal thoughts than their college peers, and they are least likely to seek mental health services on campus.
This is why LTSC launched Changing Tides, to help tackle decades of ingrained culture and values to help improve the lives of those dealing with mental health issues.
Changing Tides, Changing Minds
Courtlyn Shimada is co-founder of Changing Tides and daughter of Margaret Shimada, director of social services at LTSC. Courtlyn explained what inspired the creation of Changing Tides.
“My mother is a clinical social worker and has been involved with LTSC for much of her life. So within our family, mental health was something that was pretty easy to talk about; it wasn’t taboo.”
Growing up in Palos Verdes and attending a rigorous high school, Courtlyn became aware of mental health issues among her peers that were not addressed and often stigmatized. Students felt pressured to “persevere, keep going, and make it through to college,” said Courtlyn.
When Courtlyn started college at UCLA, she became involved with the Nikkei Student Union and peer support groups on campus. Talking about mental health issues wasn’t necessarily taboo on campus; however, Courtlyn realized that actually seeking help was still not openly discussed.
“It was OK to say anxiety was a thing or depression is a thing, but it was not OK to say ‘I have that,’ or ‘my family has experienced this.’
“I was able to get a feel for how different students were feeling about mental health and why they still felt pressured to not talk about these issues. I realized it was a huge issue in the Asian community at UCLA and in general.”
Through her conversations with peers, Courtlyn felt there was more that could be done “to provide people spaces to talk about mental health.” She approached her mother to get her thoughts, and Margaret agreed there was a need. That launched the idea to provide a youth-driven program at LTSC, focused on de-stigmatizing mental health issues.
A key goal was to break down barriers to getting help.
“UCLA has a pretty great counseling and psychological services center, but they are really overbooked, so it’s really hard to get services. And the cultural differences that really play into mental health was something that probably wasn’t going to be addressed at such a large university,” Courtlyn says.
Another barrier: communities that don’t speak English are often unable to communicate with doctors or even manage the healthcare systems available.
To address these issues, Margaret had an idea to host an event that focused on an intergenerational conversation around mental health. At this event, three speakers spoke candidly about their experiences with mental health issues:
• A Changing Tides crew member shared his experience with anxiety and the pressures of school.
• Michelle Furuta, a psychiatrist, provided statistics about the state of Asian American mental health.
• A resident of one of LTSC’s senior living facilities spoke in Japanese, with a translator’s help, about her suicide attempts.
“All three speakers were very open about their own stories, how they found resolution to those stories,” says Courtlyn.
After that first event, Margaret and Courtlyn felt “a deeper dive” into the young adult population was needed to explore and understand that burgeoning group’s mental health issues and needs.
Over the past year, the LTSC youth committee, now called the CT Crew, dedicated themselves to conducting outreach to raise awareness about mental health issues in the Japanese American community and wider Asian American community.
Much of their outreach has been accomplished through creating and hosting pop-up art gallery events that draw in a diverse crowd and engage them in conversation and friendship.
For one event, the CT Crew reached out to 23 Japanese American artists who created pieces that represented and reflected mental health, plus musical performances. The pop-up was open nine hours a week and “people would come in and hang out and ask questions.” says Courtlyn. This event was how Alan Hino met the CT Crew.
“Art is something we definitely try to program about,” says Courtlyn. “We also hosted a youth paint night, where the instructor was able to talk us through painting while also adding in his experience with mental health and how art helps him.
“We always try to keep it as un-intimidating as possible, giving people ways to engage with mental health without having to directly jump in.”
Despite these strides, there is much more work to be done. As statistics show, there are many complex issues that must be addressed. Changing Tides will host a mental health conference in September to attract greater attention to these issues and bring a variety of people together to discuss solutions and support.
Next Up: Part 2: Moet Kurakata’s story: From Anorexia to Artistic Strength
What you can do
Join the CT Crew on Saturday, Sept. 28, for “Making Waves: A Changing Tides Mental Health Conference.” The conference will include such topics as navigating relationships, understanding student stress, mental health for the Japanese-speaking community, and so much more. Visit https://give.ltsc.org/MakingWaves for more details.
Photos courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center