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.