Our thoughts have the power to either uplift us or upend our inner lives, says Joan Lee, who wrestled with two schizophrenic episodes and major depressive disorder in her late 20s. Positive self-talk, along with psychiatric and psychological treatment, was one critical tool that helped Joan walk through these trying times.

While hunkering down during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chicago-based professional translated her experiences into a mini-guide entitled How We Talk To Ourselves. She collaborated with New York City-based artist Connie Van on the book. 

Tell us more about your journey with mental health.

I’m a Korean-American, born and raised in Chicago, and I basically grew up with the same “golden child script” as many Asian Americans. I studied well and was super achievement-oriented. It felt like everything was always going on that well-trodden path – study engineering, go into consulting, go to business school, then move to New York.

And I did live in New York for a couple of years. And while I was at the so-called height of my career, just as I felt like I had built up something me and my parents could be proud of, I actually experienced a paranoid schizophrenic episode. That happened in 2014 and brought me back to Chicago without a job, unemployed. I started to become isolated from everyone.

Just to share a bit about the condition – people with schizophrenia sometimes have auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and sometimes they’d have paranoid thoughts, like thoughts that people were going to hurt them. 

Somehow, I managed to weasel myself out of my particular brand of schizophrenia, and I rejoined the workforce back in 2016. I was pretty stable for a year or so, and then I decided to get back on that “path”, do what my friends were doing, and try to keep living that dream. I went to San Francisco to get a job, but there I experienced another schizophrenic episode again. 

So, round two, another year down the drain – or at least that was how I felt. 

As a hangover from all that has happened, I later developed social anxiety and major depressive disorder. To be honest, of all the mental health challenges I’d been confronted with, depression was the most difficult, because it’s sort of like a pain that sits in your chest and immobilises you. It can be accompanied by perpetual negative thoughts, you devalue yourself and you’re on guard against others. You constantly anticipate negative outcomes from other people and your situation. 

And one of the things that kicked off my recovery from depression was positive self-talk.

And that was what started the book?

I wrote the book as a quarantine project (during the Covid-19 crisis) and then I found Connie, my illustrator, through a friend of a friend. So we decided to launch it as a fundraiser, but it’s going to be free for students or anyone unemployed. We have also gotten in touch with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Asian Mental Health Collective, and other organizations. 

There’s always value hearing from someone who has walked the path you’re wrestling through right now, lived the experience and shown that it is survivable. So I hope this can be a helpful resource to others.

How do you believe yourself, though, when you try talking to yourself positively?

So I was in a funk when I started thinking very negatively about myself, others, and my situation. But what positive self-talk can help you do – even if you don’t believe it at first – is to transform your core beliefs. It tells you “I am worthy of good things,” “I am worthy of love,” “I am loved,” and stuff like that.

As you increase your extent of positive self-talk, you’ll notice that because you’re trying to give yourself a boost, your attitude changes a little bit. It might be imperceptible, but you’ll get positive reinforcement from others that will kind of bring you back up as well. 

A lot of people don’t want to change until things get so bad – and I was like this myself. There were a couple of months when I was just in bed and couldn’t do anything, and I told myself this is bad, this isn’t how my brain used to work. And I wanted to fix it in a constructive way.

Life comes with a lot of challenges, you know. There’s always going to be the possibility of disappointment, and if you don’t know how to talk to yourself, it can be very painful.

Did you get support from your network of friends and family?

Some people’s initial reactions were quite hurtful to me, actually. Some started to shy away, not wanting to talk or spend too much time with me. There were others who stuck by me, but I knew it was difficult for them too. It affected their social capital and all that.

It’s interesting to see how people sometimes decide to shy away from someone with a mental condition, at precisely a time when the support can be very helpful, even necessary, for the sufferer. Some people have subconscious biases or think it’s “unlucky” to be associated with someone who is mentally unwell. Some even think it’s contagious, etc. 

Based on your observations and personal experiences over the years, how have people’s mindsets around mental health changed?

So I think mental health is pretty “trendy” right now, and it’s a good thing. People are thinking about how they can accept and evaluate themselves and others, and that’s good. But for the older generation, it still is quite a “taboo” issue to talk about. A lot of people wouldn’t like to go into too much detail when sharing about their struggles with mental health.

The younger generation may be kind of familiar with talking about emotional health, especially with the pandemic and everything, but they are just getting started.

Do you think there is a cultural aspect as well? Some people say that Asian cultures tend to stigmatize mental health.

My parents understand now because they were forced to live it (with me). They had a hard time and may have seen me as “defective” for a while, as someone who went from golden child to black sheep. I was the person that they were like, you know, so disappointed and heartbroken over for a while. I didn’t trust them either, at that time. We had a lot of hard moments. But they stood by me, and through the slow healing process, we’re now a lot closer than we ever have been.

But then I do remember people around me, including those at church talking behind my back. Even my mom would tell me how they’d refer to me as “the crazy one”. I remember desperately wanting friendships but not quite finding them. I would say that these experiences could be true outside the Asian cultures as well, though.

Where are you now in this healing journey? Do you have plans for the future?

I don’t identify with schizophrenia anymore. I haven’t had any episode since, like, October of 2018.

I started a non-profit a couple of months ago, providing virtual SAT prep for students in the Chicagoland area. And I’d like for that to grow into a sustainable non-profit. We crowdfunded this year, but I hope we can get grants going forward, to do that for a larger group of students.

After tumbling from this “normal path” and being way off course from where I thought I would be, I have kind of reframed everything. I am very fulfilled in my current job in the healthcare technology sector, but what’s more important for me now is to learn as much as I can. I don’t know if I’ll be in a position where I can help fix anything related to healthcare, but that is kind of in the back of my mind. 

Have you ever felt like what is normal to you is way outside of what is normal for the people around you? At times like that, having a friend who has gone where you’ve gone, and whom you can share with and listen to, is like a balm to the soul. 

Tanushree, founder and host of The Desi Condition podcast
Tanushree, founder and host of The Desi Condition podcast

Tell us how The Desi Condition started and why you felt there was a need for it.

Tanushree: I grew up in Queens, New York. I was born and raised here. I have always had ADHD, depression, and these were things that went undiagnosed until well into my adulthood. I realised that all of this stuff went unnoticed because they were often brushed aside,like, you know, “Oh, she’s just shy,” or “She’s kind of quiet,” but that’s not what was happening. 

It’s not that I blame my family; I think they just didn’t quite know how to identify what was going on. And that was what inspired me to want to normalise conversations around mental health. 

The Desi Condition started about a year ago. Once I decided that we wanted to talk about de-stigmatisation of mental health, I knew we had to be talking about culture. I realised there was a need for people to be talking about mental health and what is it about Desi culture that kind of exacerbates certain attitudes toward mental health.

Can you share more about how your culture may have affected your own mental health?

Tanushree: I think there was a fair bit of pressure to live up to the “immigrant dream.” And if I’m being honest, I think there is a lot of sexism in Asian culture, so that definitely contributed to it. I had a lot of anxiety as a kid, a lot of emotional problems. 

In Desi culture, people kind of just sweep that kind of stuff under the rug, because they themselves were never really exposed to that back in their home countries. So when they see it happening here, they are just kind of like, it’s not a big deal, it’s a “mood.” A “mood” is very different from a mental health condition, but that is what it gets written off as; like it’s just temporary, and not real, you know?

Why did you pick the podcast platform?

Tanushree: I guess there were a couple other ways I could have done this, like writing or making videos. I know that I’m too lazy to make videos. I did consider writing, but I know that I don’t necessarily have the discipline to write once a week or a few times a week.

I like listening to podcasts; I like the audio medium and I enjoy listening to audiobooks. And podcasting just felt like a good way to interview other people and to have them own my show, speaking in their own voice. And I really like that.

You’ve pulled off three seasons so far – kudos to that! What’s been the most-talked-about topics when it comes to Desi culture and mental health?

Tanushree: One thing that comes up a lot is the conditioning – which is also where the name of this podcast comes from – we receive from our society. For example, women are very much seen as martyrs, you know? So we talk about female martyrdom. 

And because Desi culture is very much influenced by the days of the British occupation, it’s also very survivalist – you tend to have a sense of distrust against people outside the family. And if you do something your family disapproves of, it’s like “dishonouring” your family. We also talk about familial pressures. We tend to live in multi-generational families, which doesn’t happen a lot in Western cultures. 

What’s one of the more memorable episodes for you?

Tanushree: I did one episode about platonic heartbreaks, like what happens when friendships end. I called in a mailbag episode, because a lot of people just submitted entries of their similar experiences. It was very vulnerable and there were a lot of people talking on it and just being really, real and raw. 

Another episode I really like was on the intersection of religion, spirituality and mental health. My guest and I discussed our experiences of how in our respective religions, people often dismiss mental health issues using religion, and they’d say things like, why don’t you just pray? And I think that resonated with a lot of people. 

What’s your vision for The Desi Condition in the coming years?

Tanushree: I want people to feel comfortable talking about mental health, and I hope that when they look at my page, they’d realise there are lots of different kinds of people talking about this stuff in an open and vulnerable way. And I hope that serves as an example that you can do that as well, whoever you are.

Ayushi Khemka and Adishi Gupta, co-founders of Mental Health Talks India

So, Mental Health Talks India. How did it all start?

Ayushi: Adishi and I have known each other for quite a long time, since 2012 when we were in college. We always wanted to set up something around mental health because we both have been living with our own mental health conditions. We have been talking for a long time about creating some advocacy and awareness in this space, which are really lacking in India.

My first experience with therapy was back in 2017. Back then I was a master’s student, researching on women studies. We saw a lot of film and documentaries with a lot of “triggering” content around sexual violence, which reminded me of my own experiences with sexual violence. But it was when I was in therapy that I started developing symptoms of depression and anxiety, as I struggled a lot with a professor’s perception and I would also say, harassment, of certain students. Later I saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed some medication for depression, which I was okay with taking but was highly stigmatised by the people around me. They used a Hindi word to describe me, which basically translated into “mad person”. So sometimes even if you don’t stigmatise yourself, the people around you and the comments they make can be like ticking time bombs, if they don’t have the right mindset about mental health.

Adishi: We felt the need to do something like MHTI because nobody around us was talking about it. It made us feel like what we’re experiencing was alien, not relatable, or it’s something that just happened to us for reasons we couldn’t understand. It became very important for us to have that space to voice our confusion, and to connect with people who may resonate with our issues and experiences. 

With respect to my own mental health issues, I really don’t know where to start! I remember as a teenager, often crying myself to sleep and I didn’t know why I was feeling this way. School was also an unpleasant experience because of a lot of bullying, and I was always a very reserved child. The year 2015 was when I finally could not look away from the fact that I was not okay, because I was suicidal all the time. It took me around two years from that time to actually go and seek help – I first stepped into a therapist’s office, also in 2017. It’s been three years of seeking therapy, I don’t have an official diagnosis but I still do struggle with suicidal ideation and am trying to deal with that.

What is the current conversation around mental health in India?

Adishi: A lot of it is still very much focused on how mental health is individualised, but our outlook is completely not that way. Many still make it out to be a “personal failure”, in the sense that like, if you are struggling, it’s because you did not do something right. Or you are not thinking positively. Or you are not being grateful enough about life. But it’s not as simple as that.

Ayushi: So at MHTI, we want to discuss mental health through lived experiences and also with a social lens, looking at how our social and environmental factors influence mental health. There are so many factors at play in the Indian culture, such as class, gender, sexuality, religion. In particular, religion is really dominant in India. A lot of people are religious and there is this belief that if you are dealing with some mental health issues, you might have become “possessed” or something. And that your religious identity is going through a crisis, or people just attach some religious element to it. Some people believe you can get it “fixed” by going to a priest who will conduct some rituals. 

Is there stigma around talking about mental health?

Adishi: Definitely. For example, if we want to talk to our family members about what we’re going through, the attempt could snowball into a conversation about how there is something deeply wrong with you. On the face of it, there appears to be more initiatives coming up that seek to increase conversations about mental health. There is a lot of buzz and, to some extent, “noise” online. But in terms of whether this is translated into our conversations offline, we don’t think much has changed.

Just recently, a very famous Bollywood actor allegedly died by suicide, and the way people are talking around it, including the media, is sensationalism on another level – in a very ignorant and insensitive way. None of that gives you the impression that mental health is becoming less stigmatised. 

Ayushi: There has been a lot of news coverage on this incident. Some news channels dug up past videos of him during better times with his family, and actually had the audacity to comment that he didn’t look like someone who was suffering from depression. And that is the kind of narrative that we often encounter in India – that if a person is looking a certain way, they can’t really have a mental health issue. There are so many other examples and we could spend a whole day talking about it.

How does MHTI seek to change that narrative?

Adishi: Our work was initially just online, we dedicated our efforts to creating content around mental health awareness. We gradually also started holding physical events. For instance, we had a workshop on suicide prevention last year, and another on friendship breakups. 

We believe in the value of personal experiences, which is why we want to give a platform to people for sharing their personal experiences. We also believe in art as a medium of expression, since not everyone shares their feelings through writing or talking. 

Since we’re still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, can you talk a bit about how this is affecting people’s mental health?

Adishi: I think every day, we wake up to new ways in which the pandemic is affecting us. Initially, I think a lot of people were coping by overworking themselves and being “productive”. So there was like a “productivity high”, especially for some of us who were feeling hopeless and stuck in places that may not be the safest and such – and we almost felt the need to similarly be productive.

Ayushi: I think one positive outcome of the pandemic, for some people, is that they are pushed to keep them and their families within safer spaces. Perhaps some were even able to devote more time to their favourite hobbies. But there are also a lot of people who don’t have access to certain resources, like tech tools. For many people, homes are also not necessarily the safest places… Some people haven’t shared about their mental health issues with their families, and are now stuck with them. Also, not a lot of people have homes that are huge or where they can carve out their own space. Thus there are a lot of people who aren’t able to access therapy as well.

As we speak, India just clocked the highest number of cases in the world, giving us another world record – not in a good way. 

We do hope that MHTI can provide some respite during this time, especially for those who feel stuck in more challenging living situations.

By: Kelly Ng

Mak’s journey with depression has been ongoing for several years now. After a stint at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health in 2017, he decided to document that episode of struggling with depression in a blog. “It is my hope that the blog will help others who either know someone in depression, or is suffering from depression themselves,” he writes on the blog.

While still wrestling with the condition, Mak has invited others on a similar journey to reach out to him. “feel free to contact me, especially if you simply wish to have someone to talk to who knows the pain of depression,” he writes. He also started Depressed Dave, a series of comics inspired by his personal struggles.

Tell us more about yourself and your journey with depression.

A lot of it is documented on my website. In a nutshell, it’s been about three years since I was warded at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health for depression. I almost took my own life in August 2017. While I am better now, I do still have suicidal thoughts. But it’s better than back then in some ways.

There are some primary issues and trigger points rooted in my experiences from childhood, which have contributed to me having certain expectations of myself. I would say the strongest reason binding me to depression is this inner voice, this critic in me who is always screaming and telling me that I’m not worthy to do certain things. It’s also part of the reason I’m just doing a voice call with you and not video – I am seriously uncomfortable seeing myself.

My recovery, thus far, has been focused on trying to quell this inner critic, to repair the past damage so I can be a husband and father to my family.


What inspired you to come up with Depressed Dave Comics?

I started the comic at the end of 2017. At that time, I was already writing quite a bit about my experiences on the website. But some people like to read, others don’t. And I felt the message of mental health is not only for those who can take long posts and lengthy arguments. 

So I started drawing comics on my tablet. It wasn’t straightforward – I couldn’t draw a perfect oval initially and had to find a suitable software to do that. And then someone offered to fund me for it, so I decided to put my own skin into it.

But it really also started as an exercise to make myself feel better, to express myself, and also share with others who might be feeling this way that they are not alone.

As I went along, I realize that the stories and messages I wanted to tell fall into several categories. The first, which I started out with, were facts about medical and psychiatric treatments that were not unique to me, even things like ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).

Later on, I started embedding in my comics messages that I needed to hear myself. One of the story arcs, for instance, is when a grandfather who lost his granddaughter to suicide randomly appears in Dave’s life and tells Dave that suicide is not an option. This was something I wanted to tell myself. 

There were also other myths I wanted to debunk – like this idea that men are supposed to be “macho” and mentally/emotionally infallible. 

To seek inspiration, I would sometimes go for walks in parks – the Flower Dome is one of those places I frequented. And then if an idea came, I’d just draw and let it flow as it will.

And has the experience of illustrating and telling Dave’s stories been therapeutic?

Actually, not really. Because I have the tendency to think that I will never be good enough for myself, it has become a source of stress for me. I would set certain targets for myself, like tell myself I have to come up with ‘x’ number of comics within certain days… that hasn’t been very helpful.

But while I won’t call it therapeutic, I think drawing these comics give me purpose. There’s still a voice inside telling me that, probably nobody would care. The doubt is strong. But doing this definitely give me purpose.


What has been helpful in your journey thus far?

My wife has been a strong pillar of support. From the time she found out that I was seriously planning to take my own life, she never blamed me, and constantly offered support, but at the same time, she also gives me space.

My family members have also tried their best to understand what I’m going through and give me allowance. My doctors, therapists, friends who listen and don’t judge, even friends I’ve made online through gaming… Several of them are going through similar struggles so they understand this well. 

I am a Christian, so religion plays a big part in this as well.


Would you say there’s a stigma surrounding conversations about mental health in Singapore? 

I think as Asians, we have a stronger sense of having to follow certain societal values, like we have to respect our elders, don’t talk back to them, don’t tell them what to do… People have a certain sense of expectation of you. And I’ve had people, friends, setting certain expectations of me because I’m a husband and a father.

I have also had people who would suggest I should make certain lifestyle changes. They mean well but they don’t realize the person in front of them is already struggling. This is also why I want the comic to be out there. 

There is also this thing called smiling depression, which I think is pretty common among Asians, or Singaporeans – that they work hard to hide their emotional pain. 

But I’d say that in the region (Southeast Asia), Singapore is one of the best places in its dealing with mental health. It is probably the only country in the region that has an acute hospital with an A&E department that deals specifically with mental health.


What advice would you give to someone who is trying to walk with a friend who has depression?

There are many things you can do, but I think the most important and also most difficult ones are – Firstly, don’t give advice. Second, listen.

A common response from people who learn that I’m depressed are questions like, “Why are you angry? Why are you sad? There is nothing to be sad about…”

That makes me sad because, why are they saying that there is nothing to be angry about? When we give advice, we assume that the person we are “advising” hasn’t already thought of or tried that piece of advice before. I’d be thinking in my head, “If it were that easy, do you think I would still be here?”

Sometimes when we give advice and make it sound like there is an easy way to get out of the situation, we make the other party feel helpless and guilty.

For many people, listening is also a difficult skill. We should try to be active listeners – we can do that by asking questions to clarify, or rephrasing what we just heard. Hear them out, don’t judge, tell the depressed person who is struggling that you are there for them.

If you know there is someone who is simply willing to listen to you, you feel better as a person. You feel valid. 

One of our close friends came over to visit us the other time and brought my favourite drink. And she just sat there with us, she didn’t say much, but I was just so thankful for her being there. I was very touched and grateful. That’s what matters – to have someone who doesn’t talk you out of depression but is just there for you. 

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

By: Kelly Ng

Just 13 when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Diana Chao was desperate for someone to confide in – someone willing to understand and appreciate her mental health issues, someone who would “see (her) as a human being,” disorders included. Yet she was confronted, on one hand, by voices dismissing the legitimacy of her illness; and on the other, those anticipating her to “scream and behave in ways normal humans don’t” because of it.

She then started writing letters, addressed to no one in particular. 

Today, this personal project has grown into a global, youth-run organization seeking to de-stigmatize mental illness.


Why did you start writing letters to imaginary strangers?

At that time, my family had just moved to the United States for a few years, my parents didn’t speak English, and we were living below the poverty line. We also experienced a lot of housing stability. All that made me question my worth a lot. 

I struggled with mental health but rarely mentioned them at home. I went through a series of suicide attempts, and my little brother found me at the very last one. 

I felt I had to do something to change my life. That was when I started writing letters to strangers whom I felt could better understand my pain. There’s a saying that goes, “writing is humanity distilled into ink.”

I think putting things into handwriting forces us to take stock and reflect on certain things that have happened in our lives, and forces us to clarify our thoughts on paper. It is something tangible that we can do when we feel helpless.


How did your personal letters grow into Letters to Strangers? What is your vision for the organization?

I started Letters to Strangers in my sophomore year of high school because I was exhausted of trying to prove my humanness. I had intended it to be a student club of sorts in my school, and even remember bribing my friends with pizza so they would come for the sessions. Then more people joined and found it therapeutic, and we started an online platform. 

It is now the world’s largest youth-to-youth mental health network, with over 12 chapters across Asia. We are served  by a team of about 50 – including a few core team members who manage the logistics and finances, and regional ambassadors across the world who help ensure our programming is sensitive to cultural nuances. 

In addition to de-stigmatizing mental illness, we want to increase access to equitable treatment to mental health. Most schools in the US do not have a curriculum for mental health. Even with severe depression, 80 per cent of American youth receive no or insufficient treatment. So we’ve included a list of resources through which people can find support. We’ve also recently launched a guidebook for youths, written by 14- to 21-year-olds and reviewed by experts and medical professionals.

I know personally that when all you understand is emptiness, one letter – one human connection – can save a life. Empathy matters.


How is mental health especially difficult to talk about among the Asian community?

I think there still is a stigma around mental illness in Asian cultures that prevent people from discussing it openly. We don’t necessarily even know how to talk about it – and this has collective impact.

I think if we are able to recognize the shared pain and intergenerational trauma, we might be able to open up and be more vulnerable to one another.

Because if we don’t, the adverse impact could creep up in different ways too. 

Diana Chao, Founder of Letters to Strangers

Such as?

When I was 14, just shortly after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I started experiencing persistent migraines. I often felt dizzy when I walked in the sun, sometimes I just couldn’t do that at all. Later an optometrist said I had uveitis, an inflammatory eye disease that can send the pressure inside an eye soaring and cause temporary blindness.

I later found out from another ophthalmologist that this condition is common among people with mental illnesses, and especially among minorities. Then it clicked for me, because my episodes of temporary blindness often coincided with my psychological episodes – my body was responding to what my mind was going through.

And I think this happens often among minority communities, like Asians, because we tend to not want to speak up about mental issues. So our bodies, devoid of an outlet, find other ways to respond.  


Any ways in which you are trying to share your experiences with the Asian community?

As a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, I can relate to these experiences. I’m fluent in Mandarin, so I try to hold a lot of workshops in Mandarin. For example, I’d speak at Chinese cultural centers about recognizing signs of mental illness and seeking care.

I find that when you talk about these issues in a language the audience understands, they are really receptive to it. 


Back to Letters to Strangers – what are your hopes and dreams for the organization, moving forward?

We now have half of our chapters in the US – concentrated along both coasts – and another half across the rest of the world, mainly in Asia and Africa. We are looking at expanding and translating our content into different languages, as well as exploring more robust online platforms exchanges between chapters.

I mentioned earlier that we just launched a guidebook for youths, which we have worked on for the past years and that we believe can be a valuable resource for young people around the world. Each section covers different things and we have sourced information and stories from medical professionals, cultural leaders, spanning across 1,000 institutions.

We hope readers will resonate with some of these stories and realize that they are not alone.

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the Asian Mental Health Collective discusses another epidemic – a longstanding one that has plagued Asian communities around the world – with freelance strategy consultant DJ Chuang.

Chuang, 54, calls shame an “epidemic” that has caused people to struggle unnecessarily, taking a toll on their mental and emotional health. His weapon against the rogue? A series of podcasts featuring honest, unfiltered conversations with those who have experienced shame, titled for its raison d’être – Erasing Shame.


Who, what, why Erasing Shame?

We wanted a platform where people who have experienced shame can discuss issues that are not normally talked about in their social circles and familial contexts. For someone who is struggling with mental health and has no friends to talk to, nor money to seek a psychologist, social media might be able to reach them. 

We started with videos on Facebook Live and later got a grant from the Asian American Christian Counseling Service to convert them into a podcast. We are into our fourth season since launching in February 2018. Each season is co-hosted by myself and a mental health professional. We also often host guest speakers who have expertise in various topics or specific Asian subcultures. 

We discuss a variety of issues, ranging from trauma that refugees experience, to living bi-culturally, to singleness. Things happen pretty spontaneously, which basically involves me reaching out to people and getting them to talk on the podcast. 


What is your personal story with mental health and shame?

I was born in Taiwan, and moved to the US when I was 8. As the oldest son, I lived under the shadow of shame. My parents never gave me praise or told me they loved me, and I longed for it. It affected my emotional health. 

After graduate school, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 34. Things really bottomed out for me emotionally when I was left without a job. I fell into deep, deep depression and wrestled with suicidal thoughts. I was steeped in these negative thoughts and couldn’t get rid of them. My healing journey took about a year, but this isn’t a condition that you can fully recover from.  Just three years ago (2017), I had a psychotic episode and wound up in the psych ward for three days.

I think I had lived a less-than-optimal emotional life till then, but was never diagnosed earlier because I was too ashamed to get counselling. 

Shame, I think, is something that has been passed on across various generations, in many Asian cultures. Many of us can identify with how, when you come home from a test score of 98, only to be questioned by your parents why you didn’t get a perfect score. Or, how they would often compare us with other kids – in my case, it was with my younger brothers, and I felt like I was never good enough. 


Why is shame so entrenched in Asian cultures?

This may sound stereotypical, but Asian cultures are “shame based.” Shame has been weaponized by parents and elders in these communities, as a way of getting children to behave “properly.” It’s been passed down from one generation to another, never really talked about, but present in your everyday situations.

For example, many among us who are ethnic Chinese will identify with that time when we side-stepped the “protocols” and did not greet the elders as we were instructed by our parents, at family gatherings. I remember how I would often get a pep talk from my parents when I get home from such gatherings. It’s quite painful for me to go there… A lot of emotions were suppressed in the past.

Or when you scored less-than-perfect at a test, and parents’ respond by asking, “What’s wrong with you?” Words like that really point to, and damage, one’s identity.


And how does this relate to mental health?

When experiences and emotions of shame are entrenched over such long periods of time and one has no outlet to process it, it can be overwhelming for our mental state. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma among Asian communities with regard to seeking professional help for mental health. 

Some see diagnosis as a shameful thing. And then, there are others like my parents who shunned all doctors in general – they never even went to the dentist. On the other end, there also aren’t many resources, in terms of psychologists or psychiatrists, who can offer culturally-appropriate counsel.

That is also why I hope Erasing Shame can provide a safe and accessible platform for these conversations. It is important to get started and not just wait until we get everything together, which is also part of our Asianness – the desire to be perfect. 


What is your current relationship with your parents?

My mom is now more compassionate about my situation. She sees my conviction for mental health and also recognizes that my diagnosis is real – although it did take her three to four years to come around that understanding. Before that, she had tried to show me how I can have a “better attitude” toward life, to talk me out of it. I had to make things very concrete for her, and personally, I had to learn to understand that they wanted to help.

My dad passed away nine years ago and there were some sore points in our relationship that were, unfortunately, not reconciled before that.


Where do you see yourself in the journey to erase shame? Have you arrived?

I think this is an ongoing thing. Shame is a feeling, much like anger, happiness, or sadness. It is also not something you can totally erase. Part of the journey is realizing that you do not have to be paralyzed. 

Shame is paralyzing, it causes people to want to hide their mistakes, etc. But the whole idea behind Erasing Shame is to realize that you don’t have to run away, but you also don’t have to be paralyzed. You want to get stronger from it, so that the next time you run into it, it’s less paralyzing. 


What’s next for Erasing Shame, as in the podcast?

The baseline is to keep things going, continue the conversations, and we hope that others around the world will catch the vision for it. My ultimate hope is that eventually, these podcasts can be translated into different vernacular languages so that it will reach more people among the global Asian communities.

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

By: Kelly Ng

Amidst gigs drying up and persistent lockdowns, art and media practitioners across the world have found themselves in a tough spot due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While we are not out of the woods yet, some have recognized the larger psychological pandemic that this age of anxiety and the ongoing recession can fuel. 

The Asian Mental Health Collective hears from actors An Phan (based in Los Angeles, USA) and Chase Tang (based in Ontario, Canada) on their thoughts about mental health.

An Phan

Vietnamese-American actress, An, was born and raised in Arkansas by parents who immigrated during the time of the Vietnam War. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, and has since written, produced and starred in various films.

An Phan

How have been spending your time amidst lockdown and quarantine restrictions?

This happened to be the year when I decided to take up a healthcare license – as you imagine, most actors don’t just do one thing, we often try to do something extra or more stable, while pursuing passion projects on the side. So I have just started helping hospice nurses care for senior residents when the pandemic struck. 

When I got this job, I wanted to do just the bare minimum, like very “light work,” but this pandemic has really changed my life. All of a sudden, I would be exposed to what happens when workers don’t come into work. I started pulling hours from 9pm to 9am. I saw a ton of residents, I’d lost count, who were declining but couldn’t see their families because we wouldn’t allow their families to come and visit them. And I watched someone die in front of me. It was devastating. It was like watching a family member, someone you had taken care of for quite a long time, pass away. 

How has the pandemic affected your acting friends and colleagues, broadly speaking

Many of my friends are not getting any jobs because the show business is closed. Many of them are bartenders and waitresses, but they aren’t getting any jobs on that front, too. Some have had to move back to their hometowns and home countries, and they have been crying to me, “I don’t know what happened. I planned everything out and now I’m locked in.” Compared to them, I’m definitely not even in a position to grumble right now.

And you find yourself serving as a listening ear to your friends during this time? How do you be a source of support for them?

There are about four or five of them who call me each week to talk about their situations. One, for example, has an 88-year-old elderly dad, so my friend feels like she can’t work for fear of bringing back something to her father.

I try to listen and speak to them with a lot of empathy and understanding. I think society tends to teach us to be self-dependent, with mindsets like “I have to figure things out.” But in my professions of acting and healthcare, I learn a lot of empathy, which is also very important in life. I learn not to come from a place of judgement.  For example, if somebody has cancer, you never want to say things like, “Your cancer is not as bad as his or her cancer.”

Both my parents arrived in the US during the Vietnam War and I have watched my father suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. We lived in very humble conditions but as with many Asian families, mental health was never taken as seriously as it should be.

But that’s also why now, and all the more in crises like these, I see opportunities for us to come together and support one another. I think the pandemic definitely still shows that the minority communities are very strong and we are rising together.

Chase Tang

Born in Taipei, Chase’s family migrated to Canada when he was a child. Chase left a successful corporate job to follow his passion for the movie industry. He landed his first major role as the villain Baryon in Netflix superhero series Jupiter’s Legacy, set to air sometime in 2020.

Tell us more about your journey with mental health. What made you such an advocate? Were their personal stories that motivated you to it?

I had myself experienced depression twice in my life. The first time was when I was about 13 or 14, I used to be a high-level hockey player and all my life, my whole dream was to play in the NHL. But it didn’t work out. When my hockey career didn’t go well, I started experiencing all these emotions, it’s like you don’t know who you are anymore.

The second time was in 2015, when I was working in the corporate world. It must have been the worst time in my life, the hardest four or five months. I was under tremendous stress and had suicidal feelings and thoughts.

Fortunately I was able to develop methods to carry myself out of these pits. I had to reverse engineer my whole life, and this step-by-step approach is something I am passionate about and want to share with others. 

Photo credit: Rai Allen used with permission from Chase Tang.

Do you think it’s still a taboo in Asian cultures to seek help for mental health?

Yeah, psychological help and therapy has traditionally been more of a Western culture thing. Asians tend to hold on to these things – like if you are unhappy, stressed, just deal with it. I’ve heard my mom and my dad say that to us, “that’s life.”

My mom herself has been battling mental illness for the past eight years. She’s also divorced, and six months ago she converted to be a Buddhist monk. For me, she is a prime example of how mental health awareness/help is foreign to many in the Asian community. Their mindset is, this is my life and you cannot do anything about it.

Did you experience it personally when you sought psychological help?

Not really because the first time I experienced a massive anxiety/panic attack, at that time, it was my mom who suggested and she was open for me to go see a psychologist. But she is not open to do so herself. It’s been so many years since I’ve asked her to look at things differently, but she’s held on to this “I know what I’m doing” mentality.

Most recently she’s taken to Buddhism (and believing it) will be helpful for her.

How does being an actor also help you to be a voice for mental health awareness? 

What are your ongoing and upcoming projects in the mental health realm?

I think being an actor and having a presence in Hollywood has given me a strong following. I have a certain star power to bring to the table. But the biggest thing is that I am a relatable person and not too distant (to my followers). I am working with the Mental Health Foundation at Nova Scotia, they’d like to use me as an ambassador and leverage on my fan base.

I also have a few speaking engagements lined up, I will be speaking primarily to Asian kids/children aged 10 to 15 locally in Toronto, via their schools and some acting studios. These talks will focus on not letting somebody else tell you who you are or what you should do, but I definitely want to touch on mental health as well.

About the Author


Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

By providing platforms for people to talk, cry and listen to one another, Mustard Seed Generation wants to bring hope, healing, and reconciliation across the Korean American community. The organization started in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, where a Korean-American teen was identified as the perpetrator.

Then, MSG sought to bring healing to a community suffering from collective hurt and trauma. Today, it wants to normalize mental health conversations in this community which has traditionally shunned such topics. We speak with MSG’s chief executive officer Cathy Kang.


Tell us more about Mustard Seed Generation. What are you guys all about?

Cathy Kang (left) and the MSG team.

The image of a mustard seed often brings to mind something that is really small, but can make a big difference. Mustard Seed Generation, or MSG as we call it, is a non-profit organization started in 2007 by Professor Josephine Kim, a Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr Jo wanted to bring messages of healing to the Korean-American community after the high-profile Virginia Tech shooting incident.

MSG took a brief hiatus in 2014.

In 2017, I was then under the tutelage of Dr Jo at Harvard. My classmates and I joined her in organizing a conference on campus to raise awareness of mental health needs in the Asian American community. There, we saw how Korean parents, youths and community leaders actually wanted to learn and talk more about holistic well-being – which, up till then, was a very foreign idea, even for me. After the conference, some of us decided to partner Dr Jo in re-launching MSG.

I typically describe our mission with three “E”s. First, we want to educate parents and young Korean-Americans – to debunk certain myths, like how counselors and therapists are these people in white coats – to equip community and church leaders, and to empower Korean-American mental health practitioners. We want to make conversations around mental health normal in the community.

We have been trying to do that through annual conferences and workshops. Unfortunately, because of Covid-19, our conference this year can’t take place as planned. But we have a series of webinars lined up in May, which is also Mental Health Awareness Month.


But how did it all begin, back in 2007?

In 2007, the Virginia Tech shooting killed 33 people and it remains one of the deadliest shooting rampages in US history. But what stuck with Korean-Americans is the fact that the shooter was one of them – he’s Korean-American.

I remember feeling a lot of shame when I found out it had happened. And because Korean-Americans are part of such a collective society, it hits harder and impacts all of us.

Dr Jo was called on the campus then, and she found out that the shooter clearly had some mental health issues. But the local communities, churches, back then did not have the resources to support Korean-American immigrants.

Virginia Tech’s provost asked Dr Jo to help counsel Korean students on campus and in the surrounding community. In response, Dr Jo founded MSG.


Why is unique about mental health in the Korean-American community that we might not see in, say, a Chinese-American community?

I think the bridge between parents and children is the most important bridge we need to build, or mend. Dr Jo herself has spoken to several individuals following their suicidal attempts, and most were motivated to do that because of cultural conflicts at home.

This might be similar to other Asian cultures as well, but in the Korean-American community, we don’t really verbalize care, or say “I love you.” Instead, asking whether you have eaten, or if you need food, are the more common expressions of love. And there is a word in Korean we use to say “to endure something” – so that sort of mentality is very entrenched and you just have to keep going, keep moving forward.

And there also are the labels placed on the broader Asian community in general, like the model minority stereotype, or that Asians are good at math… I, for one, am not.

We don’t have much opportunity to work at these emotions that are bottled up inside us. We need to get them to start talking about these struggles.


How do you do that?

During our conferences over the last two years, we’ve had bilingual sessions so that parents who are not well-versed in English can also attend with their children. And we have seen talk and cry, express how they have been misunderstood. There was just never a space for them to talk about it.

But when other people start talking about their experiences, others will do it too. It can be very powerful, when you have someone else first opening up about it, and then it kind of gives you the permission to do so as well. We want them to know that “healing really starts with me.”

Since 2017, more than 1,500 parents and students have shared their stories with each other at our conferences and our workshops. Right now, our work is based mainly in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but we are open to doing it in other places in the country. We already have workshops in Boston and several Californian cities.

And how do churches come in?

Another thing unique to the Korean-American community is that most (70 per cent: CHECK) Korean-American immigrants are affiliated to a church in some way, especially those in the older generation.

Faith is a huge thing in the community – there is a running joke that if you put a number of Korean-Americans together, they will set up a church. I grew up in a church, and a lot of my friends in school are also my friends in church.

A lot of Korean-Americans who are not particularly spiritual or religious are affiliated to a church too, especially if they are new immigrants seeking community. So there is a lot the churches can do as first-responders to help with mental health.

Cathy Kang, chief executive officer at Mustard Seed Generation

Any thoughts on mental health for Asian-Americans, especially in light of this Covid-19 pandemic?

A lot of us have friends and family who work in healthcare – somewhat befitting of the Asian stereotype, that Asian parents all want their children to be doctors. And there’s been a lot of anti-Asian sentiment amid the virus outbreak. There was a family, here in Texas, that had been attacked at knife-point.

We have to be proactive about checking in with one another at a time like that, dealing with general anxiety, fears, and grief surrounding the pandemic, and also the discrimination.

To support Korean-American families through Covid-19, MSG is rolling out a series of webinars in May, covering topics like  how to regulate our emotions, how families can enhance communication during these days when they are spending so much time together at home, and conversations around anti-Asian sentiment.


To round up, can you share a bit about this image of a mustard seed? And also, what are your hopes for the organization, going forward?

Dr Jo came up with the name for the organization, and she was inspired by the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13 of the Bible – which talks about how even though it’s the smallest of seeds, it grows and becomes the largest of garden plants, and then a tree, so that birds can come and perch on its branches.

In some way, we hope MSG can be that too, that we can fill our own cups first and then pour them out to others. This is why we want to equip community leaders to serve their local communities. We hope to have opportunities to work with other marginalized groups as well, like the black community.

About the Author

Kelly Ng

Kelly is a multimedia journalist based in Singapore. She’s passionate about crushing myths around mental health through stories and words. For her most recent project, she spent two years in New York working on a documentary about an Asian American kids’ theatre club. You can find more of her stories and writings in her portfolio.

Asian Mental Health Collective