AAPI Month: Agnes Kwong

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It is an honor to share this next AAPI Heritage and Mental Health Awareness Month feature. Dr. Agnes Kwong is an accomplished psychologist, business owner, scholar and advocate. When I was forming my private practice, Agnes - her approach to therapy, commitment to social justice and dedication to strong female friendships - was one of my primary inspirations. Agnes, thank you for honoring your vision and sharing a bit of yourself with us through this interview!

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Neshia Alaovae (NA): How do you like to introduce yourself to new friends?

Agnes Kwong (AK): I introduce myself to new friends in different ways depending on the context but in this one, I'll share that I'm a second-generation Chinese Canadian, queer, cis, female psychologist and mother of two young kiddos. I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and came to the U.S. in 2000 for graduate school and have lived in NY, CA, and now in WA for the past 10 years. 

NA: What does your work involve?

AK: I currently wear many hats in my role as psychologist and group practice owner. I founded a social justice oriented group practice and all the clinicians in my practice share similar values and work from an anti-oppression lens. These important values are the foundation upon which I provide therapy to individuals and couples, provide supervision to therapists who are in the process of getting licensed, and provide consultation to other licensed therapists.

As thrilling as it is to bring a vision to life, I'm also beginning to learn that there is a lot of administrative work that goes into running a group practice so a significant portion of my time also goes into doing that. Finally, there are so many wonderful opportunities beyond the day to day that I get to be a part of, including speaking on panels, engaging in collaborative writing projects, conducting assessments for asylum seekers, doing presentations and workshops, and more. I love my work and all the different meaningful roles and opportunities it brings into my life. 

NA: What is something that you want people to know about mental health? About AAPI mental health?

AK: One of the most important things to know about AAPI mental health is that when we say AAPI (Asian, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders) we are talking about over 40 different ethnic groups. According to the CDC in 2016, suicide is the 9th leading cause of death among Asian Americans in the U.S., and the leading cause for those ages 15-19. For some ethnic Asian groups, it may be the pressure to succeed in one's education or career, and in other groups such as Southeast Asian refugees, PTSD and the integenerational transmission of that trauma can be the source of much depression and anxiety. There are also many other distinct concerns impacting different ethnic Asian groups that vary by age and generation status. 

What is common amongst many AAPI groups is that there is still a significant stigma for seeking mental health treatment. Sometimes the barriers may be hesitation to 'air out the family's dirty laundry' or a strong desire to 'save face' for oneself or one's familial group, both strong values for some Asian ethnic groups. Overall, when working with AAPI folks, it is important for mental health providers to be curious, to not make assumptions, to learn about a client's immigration history, to ask how they negotiate the different cultures and identities they identify with, and to approach individuals as an intersection of all their identities and to not just assume that their Asian ethnic identity is the salient one in the room. Finally, be aware that AAPI clients vary in their ethic/racial identity and it is important to informally assess where your client may be in terms of how they feel about their racial/ethnic identity.

NA: What are your go-to's for taking care of your own mental health?

AK: I truly believe in the power of community. I have a strong community of friends and many of them are social justice oriented therapists. With them, I can laugh, cry, talk about the struggles of work, oppression, work/life balance, my identities, family, and so much more. Having people I can be vulnerable with and accept me for who I am helps me through almost all of life's hardships. I also have a very supportive and understanding partner and two little ones who bring so much meaning to my life and are constantly teaching me about play, joy, spontaneity, and engagement. Finally, getting massages, stretching, reading, and trying new restaurants (enjoying any good food!) with good people are all ways that I rejuvenate and take care of myself.

NA: What about your cultural or ethnic identity do you appreciate the most?

AK: I love the collectivistic nature of my Chinese cultural background, which is reflective of Asian and Pacific Islander cultures as a whole. For example, I've been raised to tend to and care about the well-being of the group versus myself as an individual, I am attuned to my family and friends' needs and preferences in a way that I hope makes them feel seen and cared for, and there are many parts of myself that are context-dependent and fluid, which I see as adaptable and flexible.

I have also always loved the central role that food and meals play in my culture; the preparation, cooking, eating, and planning of meals provide such a foundation for connection, conversation, engagement, and enjoyment.

While there are challenges to being bicultural, some of what I have appreciated is the ability to integrate different parts of my cultural backgrounds (Chinese and Canadian) that resonate for me and are congruent with my current values. For example, while my Chinese immigrant parents believe that elders deserve respect merely because of their position in the family system, I may have an inherent respect for elders, but that respect holds only if it is reciprocated.

Finally, I have a new appreciation of the high context communication that my Asian culture brings; I think it makes me a more astute therapist, friend, and partner as I've been raised to read between the lines and to generalize and extrapolate on what people are saying without them having to say things directly all the time.

To learn more about Agnes and her group practice of social justice oriented clinicians, check out Seattle Therapy Practice or email agnes@seattletherapypractice.com.

AAPI Month: Sassia Nelson

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When I first started thinking of doing an AAPI campaign, one of the first people who I reached out to was Sassia Nelson. As an Occupational Therapist, Sassia has first-hand experience with how mental health and physical health are intrinsically connected and cannot be separated. Through her work, Sassia shows how mental health is something we all have to face and how taking care of ourselves is therapeutic even when traditional counseling is not involved.


Neshia Alaovae (NA): How do you like to introduce yourself to new friends?

Sassia Nelson (SN): Hi, I’m Sassia! I love to learn, be outside, rock climb, play with tarot, and cook!  I am a newer momma to a variety of house plants and have recently been exploring herbs and plants to create my own kombuchas, tinctures, and elixirs. I grew up in Seattle and love rain just as much as I love sun.

NA: What does your work involve?

SN: I’m an Occupational Therapist that has a private practice in South Seattle and works at an outpatient clinic in Issaquah. I work with children and adults with a variety of diagnoses including traumatic brain injury, autism, stroke, pain, ADHD, anxiety, cerebral palsy and more. I collaborate with my clients in guiding them to resolve pain and dysfunction and creating a new, healthier, more functional way of being. We work on functional skills from fine motor skills to get dressed or play to expanding on interoception awareness (sensations in the body that relate to feelings), sensory modulation (how our sensory systems process sensory information from our environment and respond to that input), and self-care practices to providing bodywork and Tensegrity Medicine to aid in alignment and muscle re-education. I love the variety and complexities that humans bring me in my practice!

NA: What is something that you want people to know about mental health? About AAPI mental health?

SN: Our physical bodies are impacted by our mental health state. Our mental health state is affected by our bodies. It is important to take care of our whole being so that we don't get stuck into physical or mental patterns that cause us long lasting pain and suffering. 

It's important for us as AAPI to keep talking openly about mental health because culturally, there is such a stigma around it. We as AAPI, have endured a lot of trauma due to things like: the Chinese Exclusion Act, Anti-Asian Riots, Alien Land Laws, Japanese Incarceration, Vietnam and Korean Wars, Anti-Muslim Ban or made fun of for our skin, eye shape, and food differences. There is a lot of shame around "looking weak" and we are taught to be quiet and small but also work the hardest and be the best aka the Model Minority. It's a lot of pressure and still AAPI are 3 times less likely to seek out mental health care especially if they are feeling no physical symptoms. 

NA: What are your go-to's for taking care of your own mental health?

SN: Meditation, baths, tea, being outdoors near water and mountains and movement like yoga and dancing. My newest ritual is cooking some of my favorite meals, freezing them, and writing myself love/motivating notes for my “off” days. 

NA: What about your cultural or ethnic identity do you appreciate the most?

SN: I am Japanese and Chinese. I love how we celebrate! Chinese New Year is my favorite holiday! We come together to enjoy each other’s company, engage in many rituals and eat great food that represent health, wealth, and love into the new year. 

Thank you, Sassia, for inviting us all to be more authentic and well! Sassia’s website is coming soon and in the meantime you can reach her at Sassian.OT@gmail.com.

AAPI Month: Melanie Ukosakul

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I met Melanie Ukosakul, a mental health therapist with extensive experience working with trauma, about two years ago. It felt like a gift to meet someone else who also understood what it is like navigating multiple countries of origin and cultural identities.Thank you, Melanie, for taking the time to share some of your wisdom with us in this interview!

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Neshia Alaovae (NA): How do you like to introduce yourself to new friends?

Melanie Ukosakul (MU): Hello there! My name is Melanie. I'm a therapist, artist, creative, wife, daughter, sister, friend, TCK (third culture kid), traveler, and global soul. I hail from Thailand and for now have made home in the PNW.

NA: What does your work involve?

MU: My therapeutic work is really centered around home/nest-building, meaning helping clients build 'home' within themselves, their bodies, in family, and in their communities. I work with clients to help them tune into the different aspects of their identity and the loyalties that beckon them and help them stay fiercely kind to themselves.

NA: What is something that you want people to know about mental health? About AAPI mental health?

MU: I come from a culture that values appearing okay, though it may not mean you are okay. I want you to know that your mental health makes you beautifully human. Honour that. You honouring you, honours your family.

As AAPIs, we often carry grief silently. I want you to know that you are not alone. There are others who rage and grieve and wage war against the culture of stigmatized mental health with you. And if all this feels counter-cultural, it is. So stay fiercely kind to yourself.

NA: What are your go-to's for taking care of your own mental health?

MU: My self-care go-tos are snacks! :) As well as long hugs, snuggles, feet rubs with essential oils, anything involving food, climbing, traveling, and journaling/ morning pages.

NA: What about your cultural or ethnic identity do you appreciate the most?

MU: I love this question and it’s a hard one. I love that my Thai-Singaporean-Chinese multicultural identity invites no-nonsense warm hospitality and an invitation to the table. I love that the 'how are you?' equivalent is 'have you eaten?'. Its so symbolic of attending to the others' nourishment and needs.

You can find out more about Melanie and her work as a therapist by clicking here. Thanks for reading along - don’t forget to check out the other AAPIs features from this month!


AAPI Month: Jennifer Yeh

 

Our next featured mental health clinician is Jennifer Yeh, a brilliant Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) specialist and a makeup aficionado. Spending time with Jennifer always leaves me feeling both impressed by her expertise and also deeply grateful for her kindness and laughter. Read on to learn more about Jennifer’s unique perspective on mental health.

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Neshia Alaovae (NA): How do you like to introduce yourself to new friends?

Jennifer Yeh (JY): I tend to introduce myself first as a Bay Area native, a wife to a UW professor (which is how I came to call Seattle home), a mother of a young child, and as a therapist.

NA: What does your work involve?

JY: I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and provide psychotherapy to adults at Seattle Anxiety Specialists (a group practice in downtown Seattle).  People often seek out our services for anxiety-related issues, and along with that comes all the complexities of navigating being human, and being in relationship to other humans.  In my work specifically with anxiety disorders, I often incorporate an exposure-based approach (in which I support individuals to face their fears in session).

NA: What is something that you want people to know about mental health? About AAPI mental health?

JY: Regarding mental health in general, I want people to know that the struggle is truly very real!  My experience interacting with people personally and professionally - including individuals of great privilege, education, and worldliness - is that there continues to be a lack of knowledge and understanding about the validity of mental illness and mental health treatments.  I don't believe people intend to be judgmental - it's more that I believe that:

  1. We naturally fear what we don't understand and/or don't know well, and

  2. Fear then drives us (because we are tribal in nature) to hide ANYTHING that we believe will get us cast from the tribe

  3. That 'ANYTHING' definitely includes mental health struggles (given the lack of frank and open dialogue about mental health issues)

  4. And so goes the cycle of fear, shame, and mental health concerns . . .

Regarding AAPI mental health, I first would like to help in spreading the word that AAPI culturally-informed therapy is out there, including in Seattle, and continues to grow.  I belong to therapist Facebook groups (i.e., Seattle Asian Therapists, Washington Counselors of Color) that are dedicated to connecting clients to AAPI culturally-aware support services.  If you or someone you know is specifically seeking a therapist who is rooted in the AAPI community, don't hesitate to reach out to me and I can help connect you to a provider.

Secondly regarding AAPI mental health, I think it is helpful to recognize that the AAPI community is a diverse group in and of itself.  I was struck for example by research psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff's work on self-compassion (a concept strongly tied to emotional well-being).  In a study of the US and two different Asian countries, she and her fellow researchers found that self-compassion practices were highest in Thailand, lowest in Taiwan, and in-between in the US (Neff, Pisitsungkagarn, & Hsieh, 2008).  I imagine these disparities translate to meaningful differences in the lived experiences and emotional presentation of various members of the AAPI community.

NA: What are your go-to's for taking care of your own mental health?

JY: I love dancing, because it helps me get out of my head and into my body.  When I was younger, I took ballet lessons and was very focused on precision, timing and alignment. (Not that I had a ton of any, but oh boy, did I try really hard!) Something clicked later on - I bet it was when I was watching "So You Thank You Can Dance" - where I viscerally experienced how beautifully the body could hold, convey, and inspire emotion - and actually that's what I cared about more than technique.

When I feel particularly drained or have gotten lost in rumination, I have found it healing to look into my child's eyes (especially when she is babbling away about preschool life).  I notice how this intentional shift in my focus supports me in melting away impatience about getting to the next thing on my to-do list, and helps me transition to experiencing peace, amusement, and gratitude.

NA: What about your cultural or ethnic identity do you appreciate the most?

JY: My first instinct is to say "the food"!  There are certain inimitable flavors that are associated with my first memories (apple milk, anyone?)  I think these flavors are connected to a sense of community, 'home', and part of my development of self.

Thank you, Jennifer, for all you do for the AAPI community! To learn more about Jennifer’s work, please contact her at jennifer@seattleanxiety.com, (206) 309-5990 x300 or seattleanxiety.com.

 

AAPI Month: Christine Park

 
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Our next featured mental health practitioner is Christine Park, a multi-talented clinician and artist. Christine’s honesty and advocacy on behalf of the AAPI community inspires me. Thank you, Christine, for taking time to share with all of us!


Neshia Alaovae (NA): How do you like to introduce yourself to new friends?

Christine Park (CP): I'm a second generation Korean-American art therapist, born and raised in the greater Seattle area. 

NA: What does your work involve?

CP: I work at a community mental heath agency with kids and families. 

NA: What is something that you want people to know about mental health? About AAPI mental health?

CP: My family of origin hadn't initially acknowledged the existence of mental health as a concept. Several have changed over time. The ones who haven't to this day prioritize values that don't align smoothly with the idea of giving attention to one's own mental health. I've seen many AAPI's suffer from emotional pain and mental fatigue, and I've seen many attempt therapy. But will a white therapist really get the nuanced experiences of generationally transmitted war-inflicted (emotional) poverty, rapidly shifting tides of younger generations' Westernized lifestyles clashing with millennia-long Confucian ways of being, the unremarkable fact that graphing dad's weekly moods looks exactly like the Dow Jones performance chart, etc., etc . . . Probably not.

There are articles out there that attempt to explain the typical AAPI's fear and shame of the label "crazy," as well as ideas of it being a burden to share emotions or "show signs of weakness" . . . Yeah sure, it can show up that way. But it's something else to grasp the deeply rooted value systems and ideologies and core beliefs and all the other inexplicable stuff when they're consistent with yours.

It's hard for me to see AAPI's suffer. But cultural competency work is like all the work we do as therapists. We refuse to be rigid, we hold our frames with open hands, we keep pushing ourselves to learn, we ask good questions to ourselves and the people we interact with, and we love. 

NA: What are your go-to's for taking care of your own mental health?

CP:  I get into my body. I'm definitely a minority at the Crossfit gym, and sometimes even more when I go lift weights, but the process of getting strong sharpens my mind, and the feeling of being strong harnesses all my power.

NA: What about your cultural or ethnic identity do you appreciate the most?

CP: Too many things! But one thing I keep going back to is 정. It's not quite possible to define in English, but in a simplistic way, it's love, spoken or unspoken, and loyalty, community, compassion, affection . . . a connection that builds over time. It's 정 that kept our family together when I'm a hundred percent sure the typical American family would have divorced. Really though. I'm learning more about the flavor of 정 every time I interact with my family, my community, and my clients.