Stigma and mental health discrimination is something we already know to be very prominent throughout our society, but what about those cultures who already have the pressures of being strong for their families? How are they affected by labels of a mental health diagnosis? PEERS and the Everyone Counts Campaign have been working for several years to reduce mental health stigma within all communities and with the help of some influential leaders and organizations from the mental health community, we are all celebrating a major victory of findings; that it is possible to heal a community of their internalized mental health stigma.

After a series of participant studies, Dr. Larry Yang, Ph.D. from New York University shared how ‘saving face’ (reduction of feelings of shame and/or reversing isolation from one’s community) in the Chinese-American community can be accomplished with peer support. The Chinese-American Stigma and Discrimination Reduction project was developed from previous stigma and discrimination reduction projects within the African-American community, as well as people who have had difficulty with finding housing. The studies were separated into different communities so that specific cultural practices and beliefs could be isolated in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the underlying causes of stigma and discrimination can be relieved and eventually eliminated. The groups were designed to connect clinical leaders, peer co-leaders, and peers from similar cultural backgrounds so that they may engage in candid discussions about being stigmatized for their lived experience with mental health challenges.

On Thursday, July 14th, in the spirit of celebration, the Chinese-American Action Team (CAAT) hosted a CAAT Wellness Day event led by Dr. Larry Yang, Elaine Peng , and Dr. Valerie Jackson, to honor the teams’ contributions and share the findings of the Chinese-American Stigma and Discrimination project with family, friends, and supporters within the mental health community. The Wellness Day event included presentation by Dr. Yang, Dr. Valerie Jackson, and Elaine Peng explored the strategies behind the project and revealed the discoveries found from the studies. The Wellness Day Event also included wellness activity workshops such as Gratitude Art, Tai-Chi, and flower arranging.

Ending the presentation, Dr. Yang shared that most Chinese immigrant participants reported over a 30% decrease in “self-esteem decrement”, meaning participants were no longer feeling that their societal stereotypes about people with mental health challenges had a negative effect on their self-esteem. In addition, four of the thirteen participants secured part-time or full-time employment after the support group ended, and one of the participants began working at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as a Consumer Advocate. Three others went on to volunteer at their church or local elder care homes. Two other participants, who previously had no formal treatment, began treatment services to help cope with their mental health experiences, and group co-leader, Elaine, was recognized at the NAMI National Convention with an award for Multicultural Outreach for her efforts in mental health stigma reduction in the Chinese-American community. In sum, this project led to reduced internalized stigma for group participants, remobilization to engage in community volunteering and work, and empowered Chinese-speaking peers to become active as the first peer role models for this community.

In terms of additional key contributors, NAMI provided participants with support during the group meetings and invited them to join in mental health advocacy events. Annie Kim, Director of Family Education and Resource Center (FERC), an organization that shares the values of education, advocacy, family support, services and hope, used FERC’s values in her advocacy for community involvement for the project, with the values being central to relieving the burden of upholding obligation to save face in the Chinese Culture.

Overall, the Chinese-American Stigma and Discrimination Reduction Project uncovered powerful lessons from the participants’ experiences. Eliminating internalized stigma within the Chinese-American community can be achieved regardless of whether community members are bilingual citizens, or if they’re strictly English-speaking or Chinese-speaking immigrants; the project’s findings confirmed that both the English speaking and Cantonese speaking groups resulted in the same decreased levels of impact of negative stereotypes of mental health challenges on self-esteem. This project also taught us how harmful labels are less damaging with the provision of safe spaces for community members to discuss their mental health experiences, comfort each other, and to remobilize to engage in activities meaningful to them and their communities, which speaks to the power in peer-led support services.