Writer Edward Gunawan Wants to Destigmatize Asian Mental Health

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Edward Gunawan installs his 'Press Pay' exhibition at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. (Rachall Lee)

Writer and filmmaker Edward Gunawan has personally experienced the stigma that often prevents people from getting mental health support. Years ago, while living in Indonesia, Gunawan felt smothered beneath the weight of coming to terms with a quarter-life crisis, while also processing his queerness amid a homophobic culture and unaccepting Chinese parents. Alone and overwhelmed, he fell deep into depression but was unable to ask for the support he needed.

“During my episode I felt like I’d done everything I could to be successful, but it still felt very empty, and the emptiness created a lot of instability,” he said.

At a writing retreat in 2017, Gunawan began to take down short notes describing his mental health challenges, and later that year he started sharing his experiences through live storytelling while still living in Asia. He wanted to use his own example to help people with similar backgrounds overcome the cultural stigma against sharing mental health struggles and getting support.

It worked: The more Gunawan told his story, the more audiences were inspired to be vulnerable and share their experiences with him. It was during one such presentation that a chance encounter with an audience member connected Gunawan to mental health professionals, starting a process that culminated in him sharing his journey through depression in a web comic called Press Play.

A panel from award-winning mental health comic 'Press Play.' (Text by Edward Gunawan and illustration by Elbert Lim)

“As I began sharing my lived experience in classrooms and other venues, I learned that it was hard for me to share this story live all of the time,” he says. “It took a toll, and I realized that as a media maker there’s potential to have more impact if I can make this more portable. That’s when I started thinking of adapting this story into a comic. It’s a very playful kind of medium, and I wondered if I could make such a serious topic more approachable.”

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Gunawan recruited his brother, a visual storyteller named Elbert Lim, to help him create Press Play. Since its release in 2019, their web comic has been viewed thousands of times by people all over the world and translated into six languages. The project received an award for de-stigmatizing mental health support.

Throughout the month of October, Press Play is being exhibited in its entirety at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC) on the second floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza in Oakland’s Chinatown. Taking up two long hallways in the OACC, the exhibition invites viewers to physically wander through Gunawan’s mental health journey, lingering over individual panels in the comic — not just on a website, but as a full-body, sensory experience.

A panel from 'Press Play' by Edward Gunawan and Elbert Lim. (Illustration by Elbert Lim)

The OACC’s exhibition also comes with events to help individuals make progress on their own journeys through mental health and social justice. The next one is a writers’ discussion panel featuring Bay Area poets Michelle Lin and Christine No on Oct. 29.

“The way Edward and Elbert talk about their mental health is really open and clear,” said Saly Lee, executive director of Oakland Asian Cultural Center. “Anyone can connect to those personal stories, which is what makes this exhibition really powerful. Some of their story really spoke to me — I realized that I felt the same, I felt all these pressures to be strong and outstanding and perfect.”

Gunawan and Lee were particularly keen on sharing Press Play in light of the substantial mental health challenges visited on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community following the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the increased stigmatization of and violence toward AAPI individuals. Even with all of these reasons to seek out mental health support, those in the AAPI community often feel unable to because of cultural bias and lack of resources.

“Asian Americans have always been considered the model minority,” said Gunawan. “There are stereotypes that we’re quiet but very high-performing, and that doesn’t serve individuals in the community, because then we’re boxed into a category that doesn’t serve us. In the immigrant and refugee community there are even more challenges in terms of culture and resources, and a lot of newcomers to the country may not be a financially resourced to access things like therapy.”

Gunawan hopes that Press Play and the exhibition at the OACC will help change all that. For him, curating and installing an exhibition of his web comic at the OACC has proven to be a full-circle moment in his lifelong mental health journey. It’s given him a chance to take stock of all the progress he’s made, while also to realize how the tale he began telling five years ago has taken on a life of its own.

“It was a kind of weird experience to see this story in this format,” Gunawan said. “I recognized it as my story, but it wasn’t just my story any longer. There’s a distance now. Seeing it all together, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we did all that.’”

Resources

Asian Health Services offers mental health services with staff who are bilingual and bicultural in Cantonese, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Mien, Vietnamese and English. To schedule an appointment call 510-735-3900. They also offer an ACCESS Line at 510-735-3939.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness San Francisco provides online support groups for individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color, as well as a Cantonese-language support group for families and caregivers. It also offers various presentations on overcoming mental health stigma.

Richmond Area Multi-Services offers culturally competent mental health support for the API community via both peer-based services and clinical counseling.

The Asian Mental Health Collective offers a database of Asian therapists to provide those in need with culturally competent clinicians.