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Kansas City Vietnamese family, experts changing narrative around mental health for AAPI community

Local AAPI Family talks mental health
Posted at 9:37 PM, May 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-30 22:40:43-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From an early age, Chi Nguyen was forced to put on a brave face.

“I escaped Vietnam when I was 18 months old,” Nguyen said.

According to Nguyen, she's held her mother's hand every step of the way.

“We went without my dad because at the time, if you escaped Vietnam, you had to pay for people to tell you how to escape," Nguyen said. "And so we only had enough money for my mom and I to go. So my mom and I went when I was 18 months old and we got to the U.S., and my dad came a year and a half later."

Nguyen grew up in the Alexandria, Virginia, area near Washington D.C. Her family like many Asian families, left their homeland to live the American dream.

“When you are growing up, you know how much your mom and dad have sacrificed to have you there," Nguyen said. "And you sure don’t want to disappoint them, because of all of the things they have gone through to get you to America to have a better life."

However, as a teenager, keeping up with traditions in a new world were pretty black and white for Nguyen.

“There is this other underlying factor of trying to be grateful that you’re here and not wanting to stir anything up and just kind of laying low,” she said. "It was a strict culture, so you weren’t allowed to do a lot of things outside of the home.”

Throughout her life, Nguyen witnessed others around her do things that she wasn't able to.

"It felt unfair growing up because I saw other kids be able to do what they wanted, and sort of not have to live up the expectation of being perfect, or getting the perfect grades, or getting into a really good school in their opinion," Nguyen said.

This narrative that Nguyen explained is something that South East Asian therapist Sindhu Fedasuk says is hard to grasp for many Asian children.

“There is not reward for speaking your mind or being an individual because its a collectivistic culture," Fedasuk, a therapist at Opal KC, said” If it’s good for one person, if it doesn’t benefit the whole community, it’s not worth pursing if the cost and benefit don’t balance itself out. There’s never a validating piece to it, so there's not like a 'Hey, you did great and so here is your validation.' So it’s hard to sustain that.”

This pressure that Fedsuk described is one that Nguyen endured to an extent.

"I have no problem talking to my parents, but it almost seems surface level," Nguyen said. "Like you know, are you okay? Are you getting fed? Do you need these things? What do you need for school? What can we do for you? But it wasn’t, what is making you happy? What is making you sad?"

Fedsuk says in Asian Culture, like many immigrating families, you’re taught to survive.

“It’s survival of the fittest, so there is naturally a built in complex of competition in Asian culture naturally,” Fedasuk said. “Well I was taught to stifle my feelings and I was taught that my limitations or my weaknesses shouldn’t be expressed. So you first have to even conquer the feeling of being a failure regarding that, because for Asians admitting that you need help, would mean admitting that you need help with something."

According to Fedasuk, this ideology can make it harder to find peace, when you're taught to show nothing but strength.

“I think the saddest part is how do you strike a balance between being someone who can ask for help, and someone who feels in competition with everybody, because to ask for help would mean weakness, and to stay in competition would mean strength," Fedasuk said.

However for Nguyen, this was a narrative that she wanted to change for her first born son Thomas Mancuso.

“Nobody I knew went to therapy, and if I was growing up and there were any issues, they weren’t really talked about,” Nguyen said. “As far as being able to talk about things openly, I didn’t feel. It’s not like I didn’t feel loved or anything like that, but when I became a mom, especially with Thomas being my first, I realized that things do need to be talked about. He does need to be able to get out his problems or any frustrations that he has and that’s only going to happen if he talks about it.”

Nguyen felt therapy was a good idea at an early age for Thomas after his parents' divorce, and moving from North Carolina to Kansas to chase his dreams of playing soccer.

“It’s almost like a stress reliever whenever I needed it,” Thomas Mancuso said. "It makes me more comfortable with everyday life just knowing that I have someone I can go talk to if I am going through something.”

However, Thomas understood that in order to meet his goal, he had to be the best on and off the field

“We all view it as a negative, and as a bad thing, and that was my initial reaction," Mancuso said. "But as I talked to my mom about it and even my dad, I was like okay this is just another positive factor in my life, it’s something that can help me be a better person."

This space or realization from Mancuso is something that Fedasuk says many Asian children and adults never get.

“You question yourself all the time. Anxiety I would say is a major thing which I see a lot with my Asian clients," Fedasuk said. "A lot of depression, because the bar is set so high and you’re almost set up to fail. What an emptiest to try, if you know you’re going to be doomed at the beginning, if the bar is too high or it’s something out of your reach."

Nguyen is now also putting her younger son William in therapy, teaching her sons it’s okay to not be okay.

“If your tooth hurts, you go to a dentist who is an expert on teeth," she said. "And I think for therapy, if something is hurting your heart or your mind, you need to go to an expert and talk to them about it."

Fedasuk says for many, the willingness or acceptance to seek therapy is not the simple writing on the wall.

That's because according to the American Psychological Association in 2015, only 5% of psychologists were Asian.

“People who are biopic or specially Asian want an Asian provider, because it’s a basic understanding, because we have the same unspoken lingo,” Fedasuk said. ”I think that people generally think that they are going for an answer. So to go somewhere and get asked more questions and have to justify, that does not pan out well. Like that adds to the stress that’s already pre-existing.”

Now proud of the choice she’s made for her family, Nguyen is wanting to to change the game for her children and other Asians who see mental health as a taboo.

“We agreed as a family, you know is it a success if Thomas gets a professional contract? Or he gets a full scholarship to a D1 school?" Nguyen said. "No, it’s not a success then, it’s a success if Thomas knows he had a family that supports him and wants him to achieve his dreams, and will do whatever it takes to help him get to those dreams."