Reflections from the ACCT Conference: Chinese Canadians Need to Organize Around Community Mental Health Resources STAT

Jason Isolini [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
This past weekend, I went to Calgary to join over 100 fellow Chinese-Canadians to attend the inaugural “Action! Chinese Canadians Together (ACCT) Leadership Conference.

It was a weekend of deep healing and reflections on identity, progress, and the many barriers that still exist for us as a community. Among the highlights were a youth panel, organized by many of my younger colleagues, to deep dive into the inter-generational challenges that made some of the previous sessions difficult to set through.

Many of the youth (including those well into their 30’s) felt as though their leadership efforts were not yet being recognized and that speakers were speaking down to some of their lived experiences and re-enforcing patriarchal modes of thinking.

Personally, I did observe that older male voices tended to dominate speaker panels and the small group sessions meant for sharing weren’t always accessible to those with quieter voices or more nuanced/conflicting perspectives. The concept of co-existing ‘commonalities’ and ‘differences’ came up several times during the afternoon.

What I also saw  was therapy in session – as tears were shed, especially by many of the younger participants, but in particular when speaking to the challenges of growing up Chinese, growing up mixed race, and the difficulties connecting to both our parents and grandparents generation and mainstream society. Many elders in the room, afterwards, came around to commend the youth and discussed how they too had tears from listening to these perspecties.

I think these type of spaces and conversations are so important, yet more and more mainstream society is asking us to think beyond, colour, race and identity that we don’t lose sight of how crucial these are to our DNA and our understanding of the individual ‘self.’

I would also argue that, to contrary, until we have these conversations with ourselves and between ourselves (and other oppressed communities including the wisdom of Indigenous descendants to this land) we will not be able to simply carry our ‘play the game’ mentality to positions of power and privilege in Canadian society in a manner that does not cause us to re-enforce those oppressive systems on others, and does not tokenize us away from our communities.

The Mental Health Crisis that No One Is Talking About and the Stigmas Within

The most incredible experience I had was in facilitating a session with Olivia Chow on both story-telling and community organizing. I was one of several facilitators and was assigned to a group from Calgary.

I won’t be discussing any names and organizations (as per the community agreement made before starting the panel and in my small group that I enforced).

I will say that during the story-telling session (after I was socratic-method called on stage and bombed a story-telling example), a speaker in my small group opened up to talk about their own challenges with mental health, how they had a personal connection to suicide, and how this issue affect their Chinese-Canadian clients (i.e. the ongoing ‘stigma’). After a group feedback session of coaching, they felt empowered to share this story with the larger group of attendees. It was very powerful and relatable to the individuals there to here them call us to action – and in fact led to a stakeholder in the room connecting with them to offer support.

I can’t remember the exact facts that were shared, but apparently a subset of Asian Canadian (or was it Chinese Canadian youth) are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from mental health related issues. Another stat that came up earlier in the conference was that within a period of I think it was 20-30 years, mental health will become the greatest factor inhibiting our economy. This places our community at the forefront of a risk to our economic and personal well-being.

We had discussed in our small group that we wanted to bring these theme of mental health into the second part of the workshop. The second part of the workshop was discussing the ideas arising from our stories and our own work (largely around Chinatowns) and turning it into some sort of organizing goal.

We came up with an organizing statement, theory of change, ally mapping, and tactic generation process to try and start up a “Chinese-Canadian Mental Health Co-Op” on the premise that these individuals and organizations present wanted to lobby the Alberta Provincial Government for funds prior to their budget this Fall and provide culturally and linguistically-specific funding.

Before even coming up with our organizing statement, a simple intro around the room revealed everyone…. (self-selecting, as they choose to work on this project) had their lives touched by mental health. It ranged from elders who themselves were going through mental health issues from abusive relationships, to mothers unable to work full-time to take care of a child debilitated by mental health, to seniors feeling isolated from community, to youth and international students going through these challenges. As we went around the room, it was clear that for many of us this was the first time we were sharing on this ‘taboo’ and stigmatized topic. The mood was somber yet resolute.

It was clear that there was a lot of work to be done in our short planning session.

First, as Chinese Canadians we realized we needed to organize on this by creating inclusive personal spaces to hold these conversations. We discussed how the encouragement of young adults to pursue careers in social work and counseling would also help deal with the issue of resource shortage. We recognized that most of the available mental health resources online are in the English language, creating a major barrier to those who are unable to find names and that these resource lists are often in big cities and not shared province or Nation-wide. I heard again (as I have heard time and time again from my clients) that school and work counselors and resources are not nearly enough to address these issues.

As we were organizing and planning, it was clear that a plan was do-able but that such a plan appeared to replicate the usual process of (1) lobbying government through petitions; (2) a cultural communications strategy highlighting prominent Chinese-Canadians suffering from mental health issues; (3) surveys and committees struck up to study the issue and highlight the scope of the problem; and (4) events to raise funds and awareness.  To implement these in practice would require a lot of connecting with stakeholders and persons with power, many of whom may not be vocal champions or see the need for resources directed at one particular cultural community.

We ended up setting up our tactics after getting group consensus but not being able to map these out in terms of timelines. We could have used another three hours, which unfortunately weren’t there.

I am sad that the workshop is over but I do hope someone and some ground of people will take the championing of this forward in Calgary and other cities across Canada. Especially given the tragic news of 9-year old Amal (cited by the speaker in their talk as well) I think it is only appropriate that we were beginning the planning process there.

I have tried to, below, summarize some of my thoughts arising from the session:

  • Mainstream mental health organizing efforts, although well-intentioned, are not culturally or linguistically-specific enough to serve the Chinese-Canadian community. Furthermore, there are challenges with inclusivity and especially finding professionals who understand cultural-specific components of these mental health-issue (such as PTSD, migration-created separation anxiety, filial piety, importance of physical home and community, etc.,)
  • When mapping our allies, several allies are neutral (possibly neutral-negative) but both have and do not have power. This lack of understanding of their positions (due to lack of approaching them on this issue) hurts our organizing.
  • Social media can be a powerful way of spreading awareness but also a contributor to mental health issues. This double-edged sword must be kept in mind as we plan;
  • There is a two-step challenge: (1) fighting to get rid of the stigma; (2) finding tailored solutions that do not end up pitting our communities against each other from precious/limited resources. We can’t simply be firefighting the next suicide without addressing other trigger points from a settlement/sociological perspective (such as racism, inclusion, social isolation, etc.)
  • We have a surface level understanding challenges international students are having with anxiety, depression, and other mental health-related issues – and are painfully unaware of the type of challenges our seniors/elders are having with isolation and costs of living. I think this supports the work of organizations such as Yarrow in Vancouver and to facilitate inter-generational conversations that may be therapeutic for both elder and international student youth.

I have been trying to do some work recently and have been open about issues I myself have had (from seasonal depression to life-long anxiety [you wouldn’t have guessed it from my media appearances and work as a litigator]). Speaking about it publicly and openly with others has truly made me realize and appreciate the spectrum we are all on. Similar to the concept we were discussing about shifting allies over by one category rather than expecting a dramatic shift, I think we can also tackle mental health with the same approach of not trying to eliminate these issues entirely but rather facilitate a more supportive environment for those whose lives are negatively affected and/or debilitated by it so they can improve their lives incrementally.

More broadly speaking, as someone who assists many individuals ranging from minor depression and anxiety to severe mental health issues, that our institutions, rules of engagement, and our societal pace can confound problems. I am also very aware that we do not even publicly appreciate a small percentage of the problem that is out there.

I am also very grateful to journalists such as Wanyee Li (The Star) for writing pieces such as this one to bring awareness to the broader community about the efforts taking place in the diaspora to tackle this.

Most journalism these days rarely ever shows  or espouses the dual concepts of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘opportunity’ so to see it from those who write or reflected in the communities they write about is beautiful.

I look forward to seeing how to get involved in this conversation in Vancouver in a culturally and linguistically meaningful way. I do hope that more public resources.For one, I think more “Big Brother/Big Sister” style mentorship programs between old generation and new generation Chinese Canadians, whether it is systematically organized or just done in informal networks.

What are your thoughts? Do you want to share your experiences or discuss? Would you like to collaborate to make this issue a more prominent public health issue and break free from the stigma?

Feel free to email me at willtao06@gmail.com

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