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Report: Asian Americans More Stressed by Anti-Asian Hate Than COVID-19

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Volunteer organizer Krystal Mak wears a mask that says, 'Stop Asian Hate' during a student-led rally to show solidarity with Asian Americans in San Francisco on March 26, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Asian Americans may be experiencing more stress from first-hand anti-Asian racism than from COVID-19 itself, according to a new report from Stop AAPI Hate.

The report, released last week, synthesizes findings from a survey of more than 400 Asian Americans, a national needs assessment on racism by the Asian American Psychological Association of more than 3,700 Asian Americans and a COVID-19 resilience study exploring the connection between pandemic stress and the stress of racism.

While the report outlines the pain of a community experiencing discrimination and hate, it also presents a solution: Those who reported hate crimes they experienced, also reported lower levels of race-based traumatic stress.

Russell Jeung, a San Francisco State University Asian American Studies professor and one of the founders of Stop AAPI Hate, said the report's findings show the trauma racial hatred can inflict.

"Our respondents say their primary stressor during the pandemic is racism. They're actually saying they're more concerned about other Americans' hate than they are about the pandemic," Jeung said. "That shows how traumatizing, how widespread, how fearful they are for their elders."

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Approximately 549,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 as of June 1, 2021, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Asian Americans reported lower levels of psychological distress than other groups in the U.S. before the pandemic, according to the report. But during the pandemic, about 62% of Asian American survey respondents said they or their family members had experienced covert or overt discriminatory incidents.

That led to an increase in depression and other disorders across the board, according to the report.

Almost half of Asian people surveyed reported anxiety during the pandemic, with 15% saying they had depressive symptoms. About one in three Asian and Asian American young adults reported clinically elevated symptoms of depression and general anxiety, and one in four reported a PTSD diagnosis, according to the report.

One in five Asian Americans who experienced racism display racial trauma, the reported noted, which can manifest as depression, intrusive thoughts, anger, hypervigilance, decreased self-esteem and other deleterious disorders.

After experiencing racism, Jeung said because of what's happened, some people are avoiding places, and when they do go out they are being hypervigilant and "always watching their back in front of people, when they see someone running, they would actually jump out into the street and be more concerned about the person running at them than they are about the traffic," he said. "So it's shaping people's behaviors."

When stressors did arise, immigrants who did not speak English often faced barriers to obtaining mental health care, and also cultural barriers to pursuing that care in the first place.

Dr. Cindy Liu, a clinical psychologist and professor at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, worked on the survey, and said anti-Asian hate is not new. But now she feels like history is repeating itself.

"And that’s problematic, because we haven’t necessarily learned from the past. And so our hope is that this data can allow us to advocate to really sort of shift, and change the tide, and be able to ensure the health of all Asian Americans," Liu said.

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The people who led this survey want to see more access to mental health resources for the Asian American community, including language support.

For now, however, there are some findings that could help those in the Asian community who are experiencing racism.

About 28% of Asian Americans who reported racial trauma after a hate incident no longer met clinical criteria for race-based trauma after reporting that incident, according to the report.

"What it does beyond providing a platform of expressing their hurt is that it translates those feelings into action so that they have a productive outlet and they develop a collective voice," Jeung said.

Bringing hateful acts into the sunlight, then, may present a solution not only to stopping more incidents, but to healing.

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