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Catherine Shieh (from left), Milana Dam and Jaye Hobart: The pandemic and anti-Asian violence have put added stresses on Asian Americans.
Catherine Shieh (from left), Milana Dam and Jaye Hobart: The pandemic and anti-Asian violence have put added stresses on Asian Americans.
Pat Nabong, Mengshin Lin / Sun-Times

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‘Trauma upon trauma’: Asian Americans say mental health has suffered amid COVID-19, anti-Asian violence

Seven Chicagoans talk about how anti-Asian violence coupled with the pandemic have affected their mental health and their everyday lives.  

The coronavirus pandemic sparked a mental health crisis. For Asians and Asian Americans also facing a rise in hate incidents across the country, it’s been “trauma upon trauma,” says Anne Saw, a Chicago psychologist.

“A lot of our communities are experiencing so many pandemic stressors that are then compounded by a lot of anti-Asian discrimination that we’re also experiencing,” says Saw, who teaches at DePaul University and directs the Chicago Asian American Psychology Lab.

“It’s tough to, like, get your head above water and get some room to breathe when every day we’re confronted with new traumas,” she says.

Anne Saw.
Anne Saw.
Chicago Asian American Psychology Lab

In Illinois, 92 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported from March 19, 2020, through the end of February to the group Stop AAPI Hate, which monitors anti-Asian hate incidents, and 3,795 nationally.

Many Asians and Asian Americans are still reeling from the shooting last month at Atlanta-area spas where a white man killed eight people, six of them Asian women.

Saw is researching the pandemic’s impact on Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities in the United States and the effects of hate incidents on Asian Americans.

She says that, so far in her study, 69% of the people responding who said they experienced hate incidents also reported mental health concerns, “and 72% report anti-Asian discrimination as among their greatest sources of stress.”

Among their concerns were depression, anxiety, lowered self-worth, intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance.

It isn’t only those who are the targets of hate incidents who are affected, according to Saw. Witnessing racial discrimination, hearing about it or seeing news reports are “race-based trauma incidents or exposures” that she says can cause physical symptoms.

These seven Chicagoans talk about how anti-Asian violence coupled with the pandemic have affected their mental health and their everyday lives.

Kaylee Cong.
Kaylee Cong.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Kaylee Cong, 32, Uptown, nail spa manager

On March 20, four days after the Atlanta shootings, Kaylee Cong says, her 60-year-old Vietnamese father was punched in the head as he walked alone that night near Broadway and West Ainslee Street. He turned to run, saw a white man holding a baseball bat watching him and called 911.

“We’re really scared,” says Cong, who’d been talking with her father about the Georgia shootings the day before he was attacked. “What if the person come back and do revenge? My entire life living here, it was so peaceful. There was no violence like this.”

She says her father hasn’t wanted to leave the house since that happened.

Older Asian Americans “just want to keep quiet and don’t want to make waves,” Cong says. “I have really different mentality. We deserve to, you know, feel safe. And we shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for ourselves.”

Catherine Shieh.
Catherine Shieh.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Catherine Shieh, 28, South Loop, anti-hate training coordinator

“There’s a sense of tiredness that’s not only being tired to function in a world that continues to tell you that you don’t belong and that your life is worth less than somebody else’s,” says Catherine Shieh, a second-generation Taiwanese American who was hired by the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago to facilitate bystander- intervention training sessions as hate incidents were being reported at the start of the pandemic. “There’s also a tiredness in having the same discussion. We know what the problem is. The problem is racism and white supremacy.”

Shieh says that the combination of the pandemic and anti-Asian violence have left her feeling isolated in three ways: from social distancing, because she fears being attacked and because she’s uncomfortable venturing to the North Side, where she has seen fewer people wearing face masks.

“I feel vulnerable as an Asian American woman, “ Shieh says. “And I have always felt that way.”

Jaye Hobart.
Jaye Hobart.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Jaye Hobart, 32, Lakeview, board member, HANA Center and Korean Adoptees of Chicago

Jaye Hobart, a Korean American transnational adoptee, says she’d experience subtle racist and misogynistic interactions often before but that the pandemic brought that to another level.

“Now, during the pandemic, it’s inflicted a different type of kind of fear and paranoia that I’ve never experienced before,” says Hobart, who says people have spat at and yelled at her. “I’m feeling, you know, much more dependent on my partner, who I live with, that I can’t really walk outside without him.”

She says it’s difficult having been born in Korea and raised by American parents.

“It’s, like, externally isolating because I just feel like culturally, I feel separated, right, from kind of your mainstream narrative around immigration, around Asian American women, and kind of feel like maybe I’m not qualified to be a part of this space because, you know, I don’t have kind of those shared narratives,” Hobart says.

Milana Dam.
Milana Dam.
Mengshin Lin / Sun-Times

Milana Dam, 15, Bridgeport, Whitney Young Magnet High School freshman

Milana Dam says she is afraid for her mother, who works at a nail spa and is often there alone.

“I don’t live with her full time, so I can’t, like, watch over her all the time,” Dam says. “My mental health has gotten a lot worse, I would say, because I’m not going out as much. I’m not interacting with people as much. So, of course, I’m going to be, like, surrounded by my own thoughts.”

Ok Kyung Kim.
Ok Kyung Kim.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Ok Kyung Kim, 66, Old Town, senior service coordinator

Since moving to the United States at 15, Ok Kyung Kim says she has felt free, like she always had more than enough of what she needed. But the pandemic and the Georgia shootings changed that, she says.

“I was shocking and afraid for myself,” says Kim, who works for Koram Senior Housing at a senior building that’s home to 60 Korean Americans.

“I’m an Asian elderly who live in the U.S.A., but, yes, I’m afraid of to go out and have a shopping and go outside, so I still I have some worries, so not totally free, and I don’t feel safe anymore in this community.”

Daranee Amornkiatipisan (center) with her kids Win (left) and Leya.
Daranee Amornkiatipisan (center) with her kids Win (left) and Leya.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Daranee Amornkiatipisan, 40, Lakeview, registered nurse

“It pains me deeply that Asian people are being verbally and physically attacked, you know, during this pandemic when we’re supposed to be healing together as a nation,” says Daranee Amornkiatipisan, a Thai-Filipino-Chinese nurse who brought her children to a Stop Asian Hate rally in Chinatown because she wants them to be proud to be Asian.

“But instead we’re divided in pain,” says Amornkiatipisan, who was caring for COVID-19 patients at the beginning of the pandemic. She contracted the disease in March 2020 and was “very ill” for three months, an experienced she called “very traumatic.” “I’m a health care worker, and I take care of others, you know, and, especially during this pandemic, I’m fighting for my life, too.”

Mari Yamagiwa.
Mari Yamagiwa.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Mari Yamagiwa, 30, Jefferson Park, North Park University student

Mari Yamagiwa, a fourth-generation Japanese American, says that, she has become hypervigilant and that she and her friends have had “visceral reactions” like fatigue, pain and nausea after hearing of the Georgia shootings.

“I think it can be really triggering for so many of us,” says Yamagiwa, who says she also was told, “Go back to China,” while President Donald Trump was in office. “I’m also trying to grapple with the feeling of being invisible — unheard and unseen for 30 years — and then, all of a sudden, now feeling super-visible.”

Contributing: Mengshin Lin

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