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Why This Is the Moment to Talk Openly About Mental Health for APIA Students

Photo: Courtesy of Jason Leung

Despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of today’s college students experience a significant mental health issue, too few access meaningful support services, and Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) students seek mental health resources at much lower rates than their peers. The COVID pandemic has only exacerbated significant stressors APIA students already report, from financial and family obligations to discrimination, bias, and outright violence. 

With more than 30 percent of APIA adults saying they have experienced interpersonal racism since the pandemic began, now is the moment to ensure that today’s APIA college students can access culturally competent mental health providers to help them obtain the support they need.

A path to succeed

For nearly 20 years, APIA Scholars has been the nation’s largest non-profit provider of scholarships for Asian and Pacific Islander American college students, providing a path for underserved communities to succeed and thrive. It is our mission to increase support and accelerate success for a diverse community that is made up of 50+ ethnicities and speaks more than 300 languages, many of whom are high-need; three-fourths of APIA Scholars are the first in their family to attend college and two-thirds live at or below the poverty level.  

Yet, the complexity of the APIA community is rendered invisible by inadequate, aggregate data practices, and APIA history is rarely included in this country’s understanding of systemic racism and how it has been designed into our institutional fabric.

The recent violence targeting APIA individuals, stoked by racist language used to describe the pandemic, has increased fear and mental health concerns in APIA communities. While this racism is not new, it underscores the racism APIA students consistently reported experiencing on campuses before the pandemic, and now fear will only get worse. 

One in four youth members of the community have reported experiences with racism, with new data reporting that 8 in 10 Asian Americans believe violence against them is rising in the United States. Nationally, 6,603 hate incidents have been reported from March 2020 to March 2021 to Stop AAPI Hate.

Prioritizing mental health

APIA Scholars staff have indicated that mental health is one of the top issues affecting students’ academic performance, most notably in the months since the pandemic. Scholars have reported depression, discrimination, withdrawing from college, family conflict, roommate conflict, and severe anxiety. 

As students struggle to make sense of this violence — in addition to the significant adjustments they were already facing due to shuttered campuses and abrupt transitions to online learning — support systems matter.

This is the moment to make meaningful investments in mental health. We need to identify the barriers that prevent APIA students from receiving support, such as stigma or financial means, and studying efforts that try to overcome them to determine what works.  

It is also the time to lift up Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) that are on the front lines of serving the diverse APIA student community, and disproportionately enroll and graduate APIA students. 

As federally designated Minority Serving Institutions (MSI), AANAPISIs play a unique role in cultivating environments that promote the success of APIA students. Instead of perpetuating the model minority myth and assuming that all APIA students are “white-adjacent” and more academically successful than other racial minority groups, AANAPISI programs design supports that are specific to APIA student needs. 

Research has shown that the development of ethnic identity plays an important role in improving psychological health and well-being of APIA students, and AANAPISI programs create the critical environment to help develop this identity. Examples of effective interventions at AANAPISIs should be shared with and adopted at peer institutions, scaling the ability for higher education to better serve APIA students in need. 

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