Warning: This article may be triggering for some readers. Please read at your own discretion.
Over the past year, there were several nights Cary Wu couldn’t sleep through the night.
He remembers waking up in the middle of one night feeling distressed. It was the same night he watched a video of a young Asian woman being attacked at a Vancouver bus stop.
Every time Wu watches videos of Asian people being physically assaulted in the news or hears reports of a spike in hate crimes against his community, he says it makes him feel upset.
READ MORE: Anti-Asian racism in Canada more ‘frequent’ as report tallies hundreds of attacks during pandemic
The assistant professor of sociology at York University in Toronto, says these acts of violence, whether an individual has encountered it firsthand or not, can take a toll on their mental health.
“As part of the Asian community, we see this and … It really becomes a stretch, we can’t sleep well,” he says.
He adds Asian Canadian women, in particular, have been suffering the most; whether this means facing discrimination themselves or struggling with their mental health.
“They would be more likely to isolate themselves, and have (a) fear of going out.”
The recent reports of spikes in hate crimes and discrimination against Asians in North America have reignited an ongoing movement to end anti-Asian racism that advocates say groups have been fighting for decades. And while it’s important for these communities to speak out, their mental health has taken on an extra burden and needs support.
According to a report released on Tuesday by the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) Toronto chapter, there were 1,150 cases of attacks against Asians across the country from March 10, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021. These instances included both verbal harassment and physical assault.
A September 2020 report also revealed Canada had more anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the United States and women made up 60 per cent of all reported incidents. Women also reported higher rates of not reporting crimes against them, in comparison to men
Wu emphasizes hardships like exclusion, discrimination and racism have been happening for more than 100 years and it has played a role in shaping the rise of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.
Discrimination is rooted in Canadian history
The two concepts of a “perpetual foreigner” and the “model minority myth” have played into the rise of anti-Asian racism and in combination, creates vulnerabilities for communities to be harmed, says Gary Yee, board of director at the Chinese Canadian National Council – For Social Justice.
“Chinese (people) have been in Canada since the 1860s, and yet we are seen as the perpetual foreigners,” says Yee, adding the stereotype is historic, systemic and rooted in things like the Chinese head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act.
When discussing racism, Yee says looking at first impressions attitudes are helpful to include in addition to systemic issues, unconscious bias and racist incidents.
“To many, people’s first impressions when (they) see a Chinese person is coronavirus, foreigner, China … We have to somehow interrupt that first impression,” says Yee.
Wu adds any racialized community that immigrated to a predominately white society are often always seen as foreigners, even over time.
“(They’re not seen) as part of society,” Wu says. “A lot of people are still being asked, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What kind of language do you speak?’”
Additionally, the ‘model minority myth’ depicts Asian Canadians as hard-working, staying out of trouble and doing well but it is not representative of all Asian communities, Yee adds.
He says this myth further drives wedges between racialized groups and can incite harm on Asian communities through the use of stereotypes.
Both of these concepts create vulnerabilities for Asian communities to be attacked, Yee says, adding that they are seen as meek and mild.
Asian women in particular face additional challenges
Maria Wong is a member of Asian Women for Equality, a Canadian multigenerational grassroots collective aimed at advocating and finding solutions for Asian women through initiatives like their criminal record suspension program.
Last week’s deadly shooting in Atlanta that left eight victims dead, including six Asian women, has continued to ignite conversations and advocacy in North America on not only anti-Asian racism but sexual violence, hyper-sexualization and discrimination of Asian women, Wong highlights.
“I think everyone’s feeling a bit of fear especially for our vulnerable elders,” says Wong.
“I really connect to that and I feel like a lot of Asian women can connect to that. Whether or not they have been in the sex trade or not, it’s such a prominent thing in our everyday lives.”
Wong says historically, Asian women have had restrictive paths to get Canadian citizenship, pointing to examples like mail-order brides, temporary foreign work, student visas as well as both sex and labour trafficking.
“These are some common ways that Asian women get to Canada, and it creates this economic reliance on men for survival and also creates so much isolation for (them),” she says.
“I think with this recent attack, we’re thinking about the sex trade and all these sexualized racist things that we faced in our everyday lives. I don’t see that going away,” she says.
Ongoing racial trauma
Asian communities are large across North America, Wu says, and when they see videos or reports of anti-Asian racism, it can create ongoing stress and racial trauma.
“Those kinds of impacts (are) long-term. It’s not just one time we see this experience and then we forget about it tomorrow. It’s a really long-term, long-lasting impact on people,” he says.
CNCC Toronto’s report states on top of financial loss and other stressors from the pandemic, the implications of mental distress and emotional harm caused by racism can lead to a declining sense of well-being, belonging, fear of interacting with others and seeking necessary resources.
Additionally, while both older and younger groups reported being physically harmed, the younger cohort was found to be the most emotionally and mentally impacted with those under the age of 18 at 83 per cent and those ages 19 to 35 at 79 per cent.
According to Bonnie Wong, executive director of Hong Fook Mental Health Association, the pandemic has resulted in an increasing demand for mental health services especially for issues related to isolation, loss of income and fear.
“They are experiencing a high level of negative emotions like anxiety, fear, and … they also experience discrimination or hatred or racism,” says Wong, adding since the virus began many have been filled with fear.
Wong says while anti-Asian racism is not a new topic, the recent reports of brutal attacks, violence and scapegoating against Asian communities locally and worldwide, has caused many people to feel unsafe.
Wong points to examples of Asian students who have been hesitant about returning to school and have had trouble navigating isolation being publicly bullied, adding families have also been experiencing tension from fear of losing jobs, taking care of elders and worrying about their kids.
Providers at Hong Fook are also caregivers or parents who have struggled with their own mental health and have had to take leave of absences from work, says Wong.
“This is (an) extra burden on top of managing the challenging crisis (and) emotional turmoil,” she says.
When it comes to having conversations within Asian families, in a community where there is often a stigma behind mental illness, Wong says it can be difficult for young people who may feel their heart pounding and self-esteem dropping.
“We have youth come and talk to counsellors who create a space for them to actually share their experiences openly and safely,” says Wong, adding that helping them build strength and confidence has also led to parents recognizing what they’re experiencing.
“We also provide parents with programs …They experience their own challenges in life and that needs to be supported as well.”
As a mental health organization for Asian communities, Wong says she recognizes they are able to deliver culturally competent care but because many other guidelines from governments and other organizations are almost entirely in English and French, it adds an extra burden on Hong Fook staff to disseminate translated information.
Additionally, resources continue to be limited, Wong says, and having equitable funding to support agencies that deliver culturally or language-specific services are critical.
One model does not fit all people, she says and being able to share and support other marginalized communities can help build stronger and healthier communities.
Wong adds support is needed from all levels of government and key decision-makers to educate, invest in culturally competent services, anti-violence and anti-oppression training and provide support to create safer spaces for people to discuss mental health.
“We heard enough stories about injustice,” she says. “(We) need ministries and departments working together to support the community because Canada is a place for all.”
While there is no one solution, Yee says there also needs to be a fuller, coordinated, comprehensive strategy to fight racism that focuses on individuals and collective action.
Back when Yee started his advocacy work in the late 1970s, communities were struggling to be heard but looking into the present and future with the growth of tactics, power and online, he sees potential for real change more than he did years ago.
“We are well past the time where we can just talk about being tolerant or nice. Anti-racism requires more than that,” says Yee.
“We all have this responsibility to be allies in anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism … It requires a real self-reflection and real empathy for others,” he says.
“That’s the whole collective feeling of a community of care and inclusion that we need to foster, both individually and collectively.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.
The toll-free Hope for Wellness helpline provides 24-7 support for Indigenous Peoples at 1-855-242-3310. Online chat services are also available.
Trans Lifeline operates a toll-free peer support hotline for trans and questioning people at 1-877-330-6366.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
For mental health services for racialized communities:
Asian Mental Health Collective provides mental health support for Asian communities through various projects and have a list for therapists in the United States and Canada
For mental health services and resources for racialized communities, visit Across Boundaries
Hong Fook Mental Health Association provides clinical services, family support programs, youth support at 416-493-4242
The Colour Project operates peer-support volunteers for those in need to connect or chat
SUCCESS Chinese Helpline provides support to Chinese Canadians experiencing language and cultural barriers
South Asian Canadians Health & Social Services operates services including mental health and stress management for South Asian and other communities