With Anti-Asian Hate On The Rise, School Program Focuses On Mental Health For AAPI Youth

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) – May is mental health awareness month and it’s also Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month. The pandemic has shined a spotlight on both in recent years because of the rise in anti-Asian hate.

Historically, mental health has never been something that has been openly talked about in the Asian cultures, but the hate and backlash Asians have received because of the coronavirus and the stresses of the pandemic itself have served as almost a breaking point for Asians to get help and it’s not just adults, it’s kids too.

Hlub Zoo is one of the many mental health programs offered through the Wilder Foundation non-profit and it’s geared towards the health and well-being of Hmong people.

Mary Her, a Senior Clinical Supervisor at the Wilder Foundation helped start the program 12 years ago providing resources to 35 students at Jackson Elementary. Now it’s expanded to seven schools serving upwards of 400 students from elementary to high school.

Leaders said in the last several years specifically, they’ve seen a rise in the number of teen Hmong boys who’ve died by suicide.

They said that tragedy has led to more Asian families being open to mental health services.

“When I started this about 12 years ago, it was even hard to talk about mental health because even though we knew it existed it was hard to say that, that person had anxiety or depression,” Her explained. “It’s just something you didn’t talk about and now when I call a parent and I ask about symptoms and we talk about depression, instead of saying no right away they are actually open to learning more about the symptoms and the resources and the help that is out there for their children.”

It was added to Harding High School nearly three years ago in the middle of the pandemic and the school’s principal Bee Vang said it’s proven to be even more valuable now more than ever.

Vang was one of the key people in creating Hlub Zoo.

She said more than half of the student population at Harding is of Asian descent and she’s seen the pandemic’s impact play out in their school.

Students are referred to the program by teachers or social workers at school.

The program then reaches out to the families and those who accept the help then meet for monthly family counseling and the students meet with a culturally specific therapist at school once or twice a week depending on their needs.

Vang said addressing mental health needs cannot take a one-size fits all approach.

“Mental health shows up differently in different communities,” Vang said. “I know that in the Asian American communities, our students are not vocal about what they’re going through. They suppress it. They withdraw and often times in schools for Asian American kids, those kinds of behaviors are perceived to be not as urgent or we may just perceive it to be, ‘oh, they’re just good kids.’”

There’s only one therapist at Harding who works with more than 15 students.

Some of the therapists at other schools with Hlub Zoo have also taken on other Asian students outside of Hmong students because they said the need is growing.

The Wilder Foundation also has other culturally specific programs offering mental health resources to African American and Latinx youth, and because of the increase need, they’re starting a new program for the Karen population – that’s those from Myanmar who now live in the United States after escaping the political violence and unrest in their home country.

For more information on the Wilder Foundation’s mental health resources, click here. 

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