Last spring, over 1,000 students, faculty, staff, community members and campus organizations signed a petition to increase representation of providers from Asian-American and Pacific Islander backgrounds within UNC Counseling and Psychological Services.
According to the petition created by a group of medical and doctoral students, CAPS had no providers who self-identified as AAPI as of last spring. In the wake of a rise in anti-Asian hate incidents, students saw a community need to expand AAPI mental health services within CAPS.
New CAPS hires
At a virtual meeting of the University's Mental Health Task Force in March, CAPS director Dr. Allen O’Barr said that he hoped to hire a post-master's of social work fellow trainee over the summer to increase representation in CAPS until the next staff turnover.
CAPS has made two new hires in August — Irang Kim and Misha Mohan.
According to the CAPS website, Kim, a first-generation immigrant from South Korea, focuses on issues including immigration trauma and generational conflicts. She holds the AAPI-focused fellowship position in CAPS, a year-long role that is renewable and was created in response to the petition.
Mohan, a psychology intern, specializes in working with students from South Asian backgrounds and can help with trauma management, according to the CAPS website.
Cherish Williams is the co-facilitator of the Multicultural Health Program at CAPS. Williams, who received her doctorate in School Psychology from UNC, said that AAPI representation is vital in mental health resources.
“It's important for students coming in to be able to see a provider who looks like them and who has similar background and may be able to relate on a deeper level to their lived experiences,” Williams said.
Jaymin Jethwa, a junior majoring in management and society and political science, echoed Williams’ sentiment. He said that while growing up in an Asian-American household, mental health wasn't discussed much.
“Having someone that grew up in a similar environment or situation as me would help me open up more personally,” Jethwa said.
Vanya Bhat, a junior majoring in neuroscience and medical anthropology, is the co-editor-in-chief of SAATH HAI SHAKTI. The publication is a South Asian mental health awareness and lifestyle magazine started by the student organization WE ARE SAATH at UNC.
Mental health can be especially stigmatized in Asian-American communities, Bhat said, and it's important that there is a good support system for students.
“It's hard for people sometimes to express what they're going through because of the fear of this kind of stigma,” she said.
Sophomore biology major Bhagyashree Behera, also a co-editor-in-chief of SAATH HAI SHAKTI, said that there are certain aspects of people’s culture that impact how they approach the world, so having a counselor who understands that is imperative. Students dealing with racial trauma or AAPI-specific issues may find it easier to talk to someone who can relate, she said.
“We just want to have the representation that allows us to heal in a way that's comfortable to us,” Behera said.
Continued work ahead
Many students say that more outreach would be a step in the right direction.
Bhat said that outside of some communication between her organization and the AAPI CAPS counselors, she hasn’t heard of any other outreach initiatives.
She said that counselors participating in club events or social activities with students could be beneficial in helping students feel more comfortable using resources at CAPS.
“A little bit of outreach would go a really long way in building trust,” she said.
Williams said that CAPS is working with the funding that they have, but recognizes the need for further representation of the AAPI community in their resources.
“It is definitely something that is on CAPS’ radar, and we are doing the best with what we’ve been given to be able to provide resources to our students who we know definitely have a need,” she said.
Williams, alongside Erinn Scott, who is also a Black female psychologist at CAPS, co-facilitates the Multicultural Health Program, which launched in September 2020 to serve Black, Indigenous and other students of color.
Michelle Ikoma, a fourth-year medical student, is one of the creators of the original petition. She said that while the addition of new AAPI providers is beneficial, there is still more work to be done.
“It is a milestone that we all want to celebrate," Ikoma said. "But it’s also a first step towards getting to a place where CAPS itself looks multicultural, so that we don’t need a separate Multicultural Health Program."
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