In early March, Yuming Wang, a Philadelphia lawyer, watched with increasing concern reports of racist incidents against Asian Americans over coronavirus fears trickle in from other cities. A Chinese woman was attacked for wearing a mask in New York City. A 16-year-old Asian American student was physically assaulted in Los Angeles.
Wang, who is the honorary chairman of the Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition, decided to create a WeChat group for Chinese Americans who were worried about the rising numbers of racist incidents during the pandemic. Soon after, he began working closely with state and local police, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and other law enforcement agencies to encourage Chinese Americans who experience racist incidents to report them.
“Chinese Americans have been increasingly worried about their safety every day, and the issue is getting deeper and deeper into their mental health concerns,” Wang said. “Among [the group members], the biggest concern is that when someone goes somewhere, [they] may be attacked, verbally or physically, because of being Asian or Chinese Americans.”
Many Philadelphians are reluctant to leave their homes because of fears over contracting COVID-19. But members of the city’s Asian American communities have an additional worry — many are growing increasingly anxious about dealing with racist incidents, which can lead to negative mental health effects.
The number of hate crimes against Asian Americans has been decreasing for 15 years, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data from 2003 to 2017. But in late March, federal law enforcement began to warn communities that hate crimes against Asian Americans will increase as the coronavirus crisis goes on.
This concerned mental health experts, as a growing body of research indicates a link between racial discrimination and anxiety and depression. In a 2013 review of 121 studies on the effects of racism on youth, researchers found that youth who experienced discrimination were significantly more likely to suffer from mental health problems. A 2007 study that surveyed 2,047 Asian Americans identified racial discrimination as a significant predictor of mental health disorders over a 12-month period.
Even before the pandemic began, Asian American communities were considered a high-risk group among mental health experts. Survey data from the 2011 National Latino and Asian American Study found that Asian American women have a 17% chance of developing a psychiatric disorder over their lifetime, and they are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white women are. Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found only 6.3% of Asian Americans who were age 18 and over received mental health services in 2017, compared with 18.6% of white people.
Racism against Asian Americans has existed for centuries — COVID-19-related violence is just a recent iteration. Kevin Nadal, a psychologist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose research focuses on the mental health effects of microaggressions, said it’s important to acknowledge that the fear of experiencing racism is very real.
“The Asian American community is so diverse,” Nadal said. “People are going to experience this differently, just like how after 9/11, East Asian Americans might not have experienced the targeting of Arab Americans or South Asians. But we have to care about it, whether or not it personally affects us. We have to be just as vigilant as if it was happening in our own communities.”
Read more on the PhiladelphiaInquirer.com.