'Domino effect of discrimination': Polling shows mental health and career impacts of anti-Asian hate

TOPSHOT - Sally Sha holds up a sign during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Discovery Green in downtown Houston, Texas on March 20, 2021. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
MARK FELIX | AFP | Getty Images

In addition to concerns for physical safety, Asian Americans are saying rising incidents of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic are having a lasting impact on their mental health, well-being and future careers.

Some 42% of Asian Americans say experiencing racial discrimination has the biggest impact on their mental health, according to a survey of more than 2,000 people of all races, including 297 Asian Americans who experienced a hate incident. In the survey, conducted in April by Harris Poll on behalf of the educational campaign Girl Up, the same share of respondents said anti-Asian discrimination had the strongest impact on their career opportunities.

The survey data uncovers how discrimination, reports of which have increased during the pandemic but which occurs systemically, is impacting the livelihoods and futures of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in America, says Tawny Saez, director and cultural anthropologist at Harris Poll. "It shows the domino effect of discrimination. It's not a one-and-done event — it has long-lasting impacts."

How anti-Asian hate is impacting mental health and well-being

Most often, Asian Americans from the Girl Up/Harris Poll survey say they experienced discrimination at work or in school, which they feel has consequences on their career opportunities or ability to move up at work.

Much research has been done about how Asian Americans are well represented in the workforce but remain the racial group least likely to be promoted into positions of leadership. This can be attributed to a host of cultural biases against Asian Americans, underrepresentation of AAPI leaders to mentor young professionals, inequitable hiring and promotion practices, and more.

According to the Girl Up/Harris Poll survey, 39% of Asian Americans say experiencing discrimination had a negative impact on their friendships, which could be critical to helping AAPIs feel supported at work and in school.

Negative impact on mental health, friendships and sense of self "creates an ecosystem of questioning yourself, which all impacts your mindset going into the workplace," Saez says.

That Asian Americans say racism is impacting their mental health is concerning given the racial demographic is among the least likely to report mental health issues and seek out professional help. Advocates say improving mental health access is key, as is bridging the cultural gap in a meaningful way, such as providing information and services in a range of Asian languages and physically locating services within communities.

"Having respected community leaders and members speak out about mental health issues as role models will also go a long way in making it acceptable to seek help," says Sia Nowrojee, the senior director of global community at Girl Up. "The good news is that people, particularly young activists, are beginning to break the silence around mental health, including on the impact of racism on mental health."

The public is becoming more aware of anti-Asian hate and ways to intervene

Between February 2020 and March 2021, the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate documented more than 6,600 reports of hate incidents directed at AAPIs. The most frequent incidents involved verbal harassment (65%), shunning (18%), physical assaults (13%) and civil rights violations, such as workplace discrimination or refusal of service (10%). Incidents were overwhelmingly reported by women and occurred in a public place.

In some ways, increased reporting and public awareness are making more people take a stand against anti-Asian hate. Harris Poll data from May showed that 56% of respondents of all races acknowledged discrimination against AAPIs is rising in the U.S., an increase of 10 percentage points compared with polling done in February.

Many cited the Atlanta-area shootings in March, when six women of Asian descent were killed, as an event that made them become more aware of and empathetic to the issue, Saez says.

In response to the uptick in reported violence, survey respondents said they expect communities, governments and organizations to combat anti-Asian hate by providing education for communities where this is a common occurrence and providing more resources for the public to report AAPI discrimination and hate crimes.

Individuals can also do more by taking bystander training to learn how to intervene, de-escalate and provide support when incidents occur, Saez says.

The problem of focusing on racialized violence

But some say outsized focus on racialized violence glosses over the broader, systemic impacts of racism.

"The consequence of only covering violent attacks puts the focus on individual attackers and survivors rather than on structural racism and the systematic harm it does to Asians and other people of color, at so many different levels, from their health and inter-personal relationships to their access to justice and educational and economic opportunity," says Nowrojee.

"For things to get better, we need people to understand that AAPI hate is not a discrete, Covid-related phenomena," Nowrojee says. "It is a systemic issue that requires perpetrators of racism being held accountable, more leaders speaking out, and communities and institutions working together to recognize and challenge structural racism."

Check out: How the model minority myth holds Asian Americans back at work—and what companies should do

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This millennial activist is calling out anti-Asian racism
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