Addressing Asian American/Pacific Islander College Students’ Mental Health Needs

Expert Recommendations

Photo by Edwin Tan

Executive Summary

In May 2021, amidst increasing reports of anti-Asian hate crimes, the Steve Fund and the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan convened a group of eight experts in Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) history, college students, and mental health. The group proposes that colleges and universities adopt the following structural recommendations, in an effort to better support their Asian American college student community. We note that both Pacific Islander American students and international students may share in similar stressors with the Asian American student community, however there are significant differences between these student communities. We emphasize that Pacific Islander American and international students be thoughtfully understood as groups with separate histories, racial experiences, and/or sociocultural identities. For example, Pacific Islander American students experience distress as related to their Asian and Indigenous identities and histories, and international students experience distress as related to their nuanced acculturative transitions to the U.S. For the purposes of our recommendations, we have grouped these groups together, but we stress specific understanding of these varying communities.

First, colleges and universities should elevate the cultural competence of the university at large, emphasizing mental health as an essential component of the college experience. These efforts should be meaningfully coordinated with existing competency efforts aimed at supporting and affirming Black/African American, Indigenous, and Latino/a/x student communities, such that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming and goals be directed at large-scale institutional transformation and coalition-building, rather than siloed between communities. In practice, it will be necessary for student support services (e.g. counseling and psychological services, advising, financial aid, career services, tutoring/writing centers, the registrar, and other administrative services) to be aware of AAPI student needs. To ensure accurate identification of needs across this particularly diverse group, it is also imperative that institutional data about AAPI students be disaggregated. These initiatives will facilitate a culture of holistic wellness that benefits all students.

Second, colleges and universities should conduct an ongoing evaluation of AAPI student needs as informed by AAPI experts. To do this, they should begin by gathering a team with existing knowledge of AAPI communities to tailor an assessment tool that accurately measures need. By disaggregating the data and being intentional about recruiting all students of Asian and Pacific Islander descent (including the many who do not label or identify themselves as AAPI), institutions will ensure a more accurate and specific understanding of their AAPI student community.

And third, institutions should provide physical and educational space for AAPI students to be known and affirmed. Specifically, they can provide courses and programming that focus on AAPI experiences and identities, as well as providing physical areas for students to gather. Hiring AAPI staff and faculty who actively engage with AAPI students would further provide mentorship, support, and visibility for this student community.

Introduction

University and college leaders must think intentionally and thoughtfully about how their campuses take ownership of student well-being at an institutional level. Specifically, we encourage them to expand their understanding of mental health as a campus-wide priority, rather than directing attention and resources for mental health and well-being only towards Counseling Centers or Wellness Services. Though these resources are essential to student life, they are also often understaffed and under-resourced, and may not be perceived as culturally appropriate to students of all backgrounds. University stakeholders, including administrators, faculty, and staff, must think beyond what students can do to cope, and think instead about how they can contribute to cultivating a campus culture of well-being, where all students can thrive.

Specifically, between 2000 and 2019 the U.S. Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) population grew by 81%, with AAPIs projected to be the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055. Currently, 1.1 million college students identify as AAPI, and 77% of the 1.1 million international students in the U.S. hail from countries in Asia, the majority coming from China, India, or Korea. As the fastest growing racial/ethnic minority group in the country, AAPI students represent a growing student demographic that requires sustained consideration and support in higher education.

In the wake of the significant increase in anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steve Fund and the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan convened a team of 8 experts in AAPI history, college students, and mental health, from various academic disciplines. Here we offer the following key points and recommendations on how higher education institutions can better meet the mental health needs of their AAPI college students, especially given the current racial context in the U.S. We again emphasize that Asian American college students differ from Pacific Islander American and international Students with regard to need, stressors, and positionality, and should be thoughtfully understood as groups with separate histories, racial experiences, and/or sociocultural identities. However, for the purposes of these mental health recommendations, we believe our suggestions are broadly applicable.

10 Key Points when Considering AAPI College Student Mental Health

  1. AAPI college students comprise a vast community of over 40 different ethnic groups, and represent disparate socioeconomic, religious, political, indigenous, immigrant, gender, sexual, geographic, linguistic, and ability identities.
  2. Many AAPI students are perceived as perpetual foreigners. This experience is generally distressing, as it portrays AAPIs as largely alien and outside the campus community. For Pacific Islander American students this experience is especially distressing given their being Indigenous to America, having endured colonization and displacement, yet treated as foreigners in their own land. And, given the continued influx of international students arriving to U.S. college campuses from Asia, it is essential for institutions to appreciate the complex differences in AAPI identity across domestic, Indigenous, and international students.
  3. In spite of difficulty navigating college, AAPI college students are commonly perceived as model minorities — that is, uniformly high-achieving, passive, financially secure, immune to racism, and hard-working. However, many AAPI student subgroups do struggle with low graduation and persistence rates. Aggregating groups together masks the hardships and diverse academic experiences of AAPI students, while also facilitating harm towards other students of color, namely by denying structural racism faced by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.
  4. Not only do AAPI students experience racism due to their physically presenting as Asian; various subgroups experience additional stress and discrimination due to being Pacific Islander, English language learners, multiracial, Muslim, queer, disabled, undocumented, from a mixed immigration authorization status family, international students, or having dark skin, for example.
  5. In spite of some shared experiences, various cultural subgroups are racialized differently, according to physical phenotypic presentation and sociopolitical history with the U.S. We specifically highlight the experiences and needs of South Asian American students, including Sikh Americans, who have been targets of Islamophobia since 9/11. Additionally, we highlight Pacific Islander American students as well, as another distinct racial and cultural group, with Indigenous American histories, colonization trauma, and other specific stressors. Pacific Islander Americans, for example, have the highest rate of COVID-related mortality of all racial/ethnic groups in California, Washington, and Colorado.
  6. Because of the persistence of the Perpetual Foreigner and Model Minority stereotypes, AAPI students are often excluded from conversations about racial equity and college mental health, continuing a history of invisibility and marginalization. AAPI marginalization occurs regardless of high or low enrollment of AAPIs on campuses, the experience resulting in students being unseen, unsafe, and unknown.
  7. AAPI college students do not universally identify as AAPI. Because of disparate migration histories and racial experiences of students, some students may prefer to identify with their ethnic group rather than the AAPI aggregate. And, Asian/Pacific Islander international students may not identify with the AAPI aggregate, as their racial and cultural socialization differs greatly from those raised in the U.S.
  8. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for AAPI young people.
  9. AAPI college students are the least likely racial/ethnic group to seek out mental health services. Because of culturally-specific stigma and other structural barriers, many AAPIs avoid going to counseling and psychological services units on campus in spite of worsening symptoms. As a result, AAPI students who do access counseling services often arrive with more severe and long-standing symptoms, with a worse prognosis and greater need for hospitalization and long-term treatment.
  10. As with all racial trauma, AAPI students’ racism experiences are physically and psychologically harmful, often leading to social isolation, distractedness, hypervigilance, academic difficulties, and self-harm. With the recent increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes, research suggests that AAPIs are currently far more concerned about anti-Asian discrimination than they are about the pandemic itself.

Institutional Recommendations

We make three major recommendations. We emphasize the need for long-term and committed structural and cultural change that will promote the mental health and emotional well-being of AAPI students, lower severe mental health crises, and lower risk for self-harm for the broader campus community.

Recommendation #1: Elevate the Cultural Competence of the University at Large

Research indicates that, broadly, students struggling with mental health distress are two times more likely than their peers to leave their institution before graduating. Indeed, AAPI students often know they are struggling with their mental health, but forgo seeking help to focus on academic work. Longstanding stigma within the community and a lack of time and money often prevents AAPI students from seeking formal mental health treatment, wherein students view wellness as a luxury and thus a low priority. Improving the holistic health of AAPI students will require reframing mental health care and wellness as an essential component of the college experience. Encouraging students to ask for help early, rather than emphasizing competitiveness and exacerbating fear of failure, will improve overall student well-being and intrinsic motivation. Moreover, it will also build community, ameliorate distress, decrease severe mental health crises, and lower risk for self-harm for the broader campus community.

Additionally, since AAPI students typically avoid seeking formal mental health services, student support staff and faculty often serve as first responders for student crises. These encounters can be better facilitated if staff have a baseline understanding of racial and cultural experiences specific to this community. Thus, it will be necessary for academic advisors, career service counselors, counseling and psychological services staff, financial aid counselors, and other administrative departments to understand the various racial and cultural experiences of their AAPI students. Likewise, providing competency training for academic faculty would improve overall understanding and skills necessary for supporting this student community.

Of important note, these efforts should be meaningfully coordinated with existing cultural competency work aimed at supporting and affirming Black/African American, Indigenous, and Latino/a/x student communities. We note that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming that works in concert with one another towards large-scale institutional transformation as well as coalition-building, provides for richer, and more effective outcomes for the entire campus.

We further highlight, again, that the AAPI student community is deeply nuanced, where students encounter varied challenges specific to being international students, first-generation college students, working class, Muslim, Pacific Islander American, refugees, undocumented, and/or queer, as well as being part of various other identity groups. To effectively provide for AAPI student communities, it will be imperative to count and know who specifically is on your campus, beyond aggregately counting how many students identify as “Asian.” Disaggregating existing institutional data into AAPI subgroups will generate a more accurate understanding of your AAPI student body.

We recommend that institutions improve campus climate by deepening their knowledge of AAPI student experiences. Specifically:

  • Create a campus culture that emphasizes mental health as an essential component of the college experience.
  • Ensure awareness of AAPI student needs across campus services.
  • Disaggregate all AAPI institutional data.

Recommendation #2: Conduct an Ongoing Evaluation of AAPI Student Needs as Informed by AAPI Experts

Institutions differ in a number of ways that impact AAPI students, including the diversity of the surrounding geographic community, and representation of various AAPI subgroups. To gain an accurate understanding of on-campus needs and student experiences, institutions should gather data about their AAPI student populations. This assessment should consider stress due to campus belongingness/isolation, immigrant transitions and acculturative stress, parental relationships, academic and professional aspirations, racial identity development, and transition to college (including the geographic transitions students make between predominantly white areas and ethnically diverse neighborhoods). We emphasize that employing those with expertise in AAPI student communities would ensure consideration for cultural nuance and racial experiences, with respect to data collection and methodology, and thus enhancing assessment accuracy. Such data should inform future interventions, specific to one’s institution, that provide culturally tailored support and promote holistic wellness.

We again emphasize that to ensure that data can be used to inform effective and relevant interventions, the data must be assessed for various AAPI subgroup experiences. As noted above, some participants may not identify as belonging to the larger AAPI aggregate. Recruiting from ethnic-specific groups rather than from the AAPI aggregate will likely ensure a more accurate and inclusive assessment of campus dynamics.

With an improved campus climate, students will more likely disclose openly about their stressors, and how their institutions can best support them. Although assessment can occur before this level of trust is achieved, assessment data will likely be compromised due to stigma, hesitancy, or skepticism in disclosing mental health stressors. Thus, it will be necessary that institutions commit to long-term, ongoing trust-building. Integrating feedback from assessment into their programming and institutional structure will be necessary for facilitating sustainable change.

Conduct an ongoing evaluation of AAPI student needs as informed by AAPI Experts

Checklist of areas to evaluate:

  • Is the data for AAPI populations disaggregated?
  • Is the campus climate for AAPI students assessed?
  • Is a needs assessment of AAPI populations regularly conducted throughout student support and success programs?
  • Are programs targeting AAPI students available, accessible, and regularly evaluated for effectiveness and satisfaction?
  • Is cultural competence evaluated, demonstrated, and a priority for the entire campus?

Recommendation #3: Invest in Permanent Institutional Structures for AAPI Students that Address their Holistic Needs

We first recommend that institutions increase the number of AAPI staff and faculty that students interface with, especially in spaces where AAPIs are traditionally underrepresented (e.g., non-STEM academic departments, student support services). Offering opportunities for AAPI students to engage with and be mentored by AAPI faculty and staff will provide racial/cultural mirroring that students often have never received in their academic experiences, and subsequently provide an increased sense of belongingness to the campus and improved well-being. We emphasize that these staff and faculty should engage with and be active with AAPI students. Further, we urge institutions to critically consider how AAPIs are (and are not) represented in senior leadership as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion roles across the institution, and why.

In addition, as noted earlier, AAPI students are broadly resistant in seeking out formal mental health services on campus in spite of significant mental health distress.’ To overcome these barriers, one alternative intervention for investment is the development of courses focusing on AAPI communities, AAPI cultural/student centers, and AAPI Studies Programs and Departments. These academic and social spaces currently serve as nontraditional mental health interventions for the AAPI student community and provide affirmative mental health support separate from counseling services and cultural competency. Specifically, by focusing on AAPI lived experiences, these spaces provide for identity exploration and self-affirmation, opportunities for student engagement facilitating belongingness, and access to AAPI role models and mentors. As a preventative strategy, such spaces thus protect against mental health crises by augmenting students’ self-development and healthy identity formation, limiting isolation, and improving connections with trusted mentors who can facilitate mental health referrals. Such relationships and spaces are already frequented by students and thus less stigmatized than a visit to the campus counseling service, eliminating some of the typical barriers that prevent students from receiving help.

Moreover, given the increase in anti-Asian hate, these spaces empower students by giving them the ideas, language, skills, and support to understand and thrive in spite of experiencing racism. Thus, the skills that students learn through their experiences in these spaces become significant tools for dismantling the root structures of their own racial trauma. Again, in lieu of seeking out formal mental health services, such community and classroom spaces can serve as de facto mental health interventions, where students gain resources and social mirroring, and improve holistic well-being and opportunities to thrive.

Invest in permanent institutional structures for AAPI students that reflect the lived experiences of AAPI populations and address the holistic needs of students.

To increase belongingness and general well-being, we suggest incorporating the following:

  • Inclusion of AAPI needs and concerns in any institutional entity that addresses diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Representation of AAPI individuals in senior positions of leadership in the institution.
  • Assessment of existing courses and curricula reflecting AAPI Studies and building of academic structures (e.g., an AAPI Studies Department, AAPI-focused Academic Programs separate from Asian Studies) that include permanent space, permanent budget, and tenure-track/tenured faculty. To this end, we recommend there be a high priority in developing robust curricula that center historical and contemporary experiences of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
  • Cultural Centers for AAPI students that have permanent space, permanent budget, and permanent staff, including a Director who is at least at the mid-management level in the institution.

Conclusion

AAPI students are a deeply diverse and broad community. More than ever, it is critical that higher education leaders attend to the often overlooked and misunderstood needs of this community. This will require having both historical and sociocultural understanding of AAPI communities in the U.S., as well as recognizing how institutional structures impact the individual experiences of AAPI stress. We hope these recommendations prompt leaders to better investigate the various ways their AAPI students encounter stress, and to take timely action towards providing support, resources, and an invested institutional commitment to the well-being of this student community.

Expert Committee Chair: Marcia Liu, Hunter College AANAPISI Project Mental Health Specialist (drmarcialiu@gmail.com)

Expert Committee Members: Linh An, Multilingual Learner Specialist for the Hunter College AANAPISI Project; Shyam Gadwal, Vice President of Programs at APIA Scholars; Sam Museus, Professor of Education Studies at UC San Diego; Anmol Satiani, Assistant Director for Clinical Training at DePaul University; Ian Shin, Assistant Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan; Marie Ting, Associate Director of National Center for Institutional Diversity; Sasha Zhou, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Wayne State University

About The Steve Fund

The Steve Fund is the nation’s leading organization focused on promoting mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color. The Steve Fund partners with colleges and universities, non-profit organizations, mental health experts, employers, and young people of color and their families to deliver knowledge and skill building programs, services, technical assistance, and tools for young people of color and those who support and educate them. Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn

We welcome you to explore additional resources for staff, faculty, and providers:

Anti-Asian Hate & the Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses

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