"I just remember biking up to the building and not having the courage to walk in."
Atlanta-based social worker Kaila Tang talks about her own mental health journey, the obstacles to finding support, and tips on where to start with your own journey.
For Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I spoke with Kaila Tang, a licensed social worker in Atlanta, about mental health in the Asian community.
When Kaila Tang was a 19-year-old college student, she biked up to the student counseling center at her university in California. She had been struggling to balance the responsibilities of school and living on her own for the first time. Her plan that day was simple: walk through the door and ask for help. But something stopped her. “I just remember biking up to the building and not having the courage to walk in,” said Kaila.
Back then, the concept of mental health wasn’t familiar to her. “Growing up in a traditionally Chinese household, I think things like mental health, [were] definitely not talked about...” She had no idea if anything she was struggling with even merited being in therapy. And the idea of exposing herself to a complete stranger was intimidating.
“I just had no idea what was going on. I felt very lost. I felt very confused. And I think in my mind, I might have minimized what therapy could actually provide me before even trying it. So I essentially talked myself out of it.”
But three years later, she decided to see a therapist. The experience, she says, was life-changing. “It was the first time I was able to cultivate a relationship with someone who I felt was really interested in hearing how I felt. And what I had to say.” She decided to pursue a career supporting people the way she had been supported - with a focus on working with underrepresented communities.
Kaila is now a licensed social worker, with mostly Asian American clients in the Atlanta area. She’s training to be a psychoanalyst and is chief of programming for the Asian Mental Health Collective. She’s also co-founder of Asian Mental Health Professionals of Georgia - a community and online platform that makes it easy to seek out Asian identifying therapists and counselors.
Kaila Tang is an Atlanta based social worker at the Aguirre Center for Inclusive Psychotherapy. Photo Credit: Kaila Tang
Her passion and her skills, to say the least, are needed. Since the pandemic, 41 percent of Asian Americans surveyed nationwide say they have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression. Before the pandemic, it was under 10 percent.
Kaila says her patients are dealing with a range of issues, and that having a therapist who can relate to challenges around navigating different cultures and belief systems, makes a difference. “We grow up with this ingrained belief that family is everything, you do everything for the community. Sometimes it comes before yourself even. I'm not saying that’s right or wrong or good or bad. It's just different compared to growing up in America...you might find yourself struggling between two different cultures and feeling the need to choose one or the other. I hear a lot of that.”
Acts of anti-Asian hate and discrimination can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression - Asian Americans who faced discrimination were twice as likely to need mental health support, according to the Asian American Psychological Association.
Kaila’s experience has mirrored that. When the Atlanta area spa shootings happened in March 2021, Kaila says she had an influx of patients. “I think that really not only scared people but also forced them to think about their own identity. And I think it brought up a lot of past buried memories of growing up as a minority or growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, attending a predominantly white school.”
The demand for mental health support is high, and yet, says Kaila, there just aren’t enough providers from diverse backgrounds who can help patients navigate culturally sensitive and complicated issues. She thinks the lack of diverse providers is in part because of the lingering stigma of mental health in Asian communities. “Sometimes it's difficult for people to even consider a profession in mental health because it's not as prestigious as being a lawyer or a doctor….But again, you know, if you're not growing up having conversations around mental health, why even why even pursue a career in it?”
For Kaila, therapy and tuning into her own mental health not only helped her find her voice, it made her realize she wasn't alone. “I think people often feel like they're the only one going through whatever it is they're going through and that's not true. The more people you talk to, the more you'll realize like, actually, there are other people out there.”
To mark both Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I asked Kaila to share some mental health tips with readers:
Check-in with yourself daily. “I would encourage people to take five minutes out of their day to really check in with themselves and to check in with how they're feeling.”
Open up. “A lot of struggles are intergenerational. These are things that you can't fix overnight. It's not something that you can necessarily just speak to a friend about, and think that that'll solve any kind of issue. I encourage people to not only start talking with themselves about mental health, and if they're not ready for treatment, just talk about it with people in the community."
Trauma can be transgenerational, and takes time to understand. Don’t be afraid of therapy. "Therapy isn't something to be scared of. It can be, like it was for myself, really life changing. In order to make that change, keeping in mind transgenerational trauma and breaking the cycle, often requires just learning about what that looks like, how you feel about it, what you do, and how you want to move forward in your life. So I think therapy really offers that space to reflect and to process and then to plan.”
Top photo - Credit: Getty Images.