Eva Chen is a mother to four children, and a passionate advocate for the wellbeing of Asian communities. She began her mental health advocacy work almost a decade ago after seeing the need for a culturally responsive service for Asian communities, resulting in the establishment of the Wellbeing Charitable Trust. She hopes to build a safer and fairer place for the next generation.
In this conversation, Eva speaks with fellow mental health advocate Mehwish Mughal (who has been leading Te Papa’s Asian Mental Health project) about relatable challenges in her advocacy, and her culturally sensitive approach to supporting our communities.
During filming for this project, you discussed your intimate experience with a mother struggling with parenthood. What was it about that moment that moved you to enter the mental health space?
At that moment, that mother trusted me with her intimate thoughts, and I realised I was seen as a trusted community member. I felt the need to do something to help people like her. It made me really sad to think about her suffering and that of others terrified of motherhood with no idea where to seek support without being judged. I began to reflect on the shame these mothers felt, and the significant gaps and disparities in resources available to support them. Asian communities were falling through the cracks, we were just not thought about when resources were distributed or services were set up. This experience led to the birth of the Wellbeing Charitable Trust.
Can you tell us the philosophy of Wellbeing Charitable Trust and what services it offers?
The Trust’s main concern is the overall wellbeing of Asian communities, and our goal is to promote wellness in Asian communities. We connect people to services, and we also look for gaps in existing services to try to fill. For example, in the past we’ve run positive parenting workshops, created and shared family violence prevention resources, provided spaces for people to build healthy relationships, and offered bullying and racism support.
We empower people to advocate [for themselves], and also advocate on their behalf. There’s no limit to the kind of support we provide. I am often on my phone for long hours at night and on weekends listening to people and providing support. Some people reach out to me because they just want to talk.
So the Trust’s focus is always changing in response to individual and community needs?
Yes, we respond wherever there is need. For example, we offered Covid-19 support, and we were also part of the efforts to support people with the recent floods in Tāmaki Makaurau. I found out that people needed support finding safe places, so we were out and about running, finding shelters, and providing food and necessities to people for 48 hours non-stop. I think it all comes down to being seen as a trustworthy member of the community. People reach out, and I am there for them.
Can you tell us about the parenting workshops you helped organise? I recall that these began after you witnessed Asian parents’ struggles with the guilt of doing parenting “wrong” against a backdrop of western, so-called “right” ways of parenting.
The workshops were about putting the message across that all kinds of parenting can be “right” parenting. Some parents might need extra support, but that does not mean they’re doing it “wrong”. Asian parents who would come to us would often talk about how medical professionals or teachers were telling them that they were parenting incorrectly: not feeding enough, feeding too much, not feeding the right food, being overprotective, or even saying things such as “we do it differently here [in Aotearoa, New Zealand]”. These are some of the ways our systems are currently failing us. We are made to feel that we can never do anything right.
To add another layer, we were aware that some mothers were showing signs of postnatal depression, but we had to be very careful in our approach. We would not use the term postnatal depression in our sessions. If we did, I knew we would shut them off.
I can understand such labels invoke a lot of complex feelings.
Yes, and sometimes they are not helpful. I reflected on my experiences as a first-time parent who struggled, and I would not have been comfortable with being labelled. It was not just using medical terms [that we avoided]; we also did not talk about family violence in the first sessions. We allowed the parents to adjust, to see the workshops as a safe space and then, in subsequent sessions, we started to tackle racism and family violence.
Wow. A very nuanced approach.
Building trust is important in addressing the needs of our communities, as is offering culturally sensitive support. If a mental health provider does not understand that there are many ways people deal with issues that include diverse cultural and religious beliefs, we will continue to fail.
Earlier, you highlighted the limited resources allocated to our communities. What other barriers or challenges have you faced in your advocacy?
I think it is not just our communities working with limited resources. Even “mainstream” mental health services are not adequately resourced. Everyone is struggling, but we struggle more than many because we are an afterthought when mental health support funds are distributed.
Asian communities are so diverse, and each community has specific needs. Most of the time, funding is given without acknowledging the diversity within Asian communities. With limited resources, you are expected to serve all those different communities, which means most communities get ignored. Limited funding also means that NGOs and other groups end up fighting with each other and seeing each other as competition rather than uniting to challenge this. I do see a change happening – our communities are realising that our voices are louder when we are together.
It is also a question of who gets to be at the funding tables or talking about these issues. More often than not, people working with communities are not invited to be part of the discussions that impact policies or decisions about funding. When you do get invited, you end up questioning if you are even in the right place because of how you are made to feel. I have been there many times; each time we try to discuss an issue, people at these tables start throwing big words around. We could be talking about the same problems, but I have often been made to feel that I do not know enough because I am not able to respond using those same big words. It happens to me all the time; I simply become invisible. Surprisingly though, when those people want to gain access to a community, suddenly everything changes.
You have kept moving despite dealing with the many challenges advocates for marginalised communities face – working with fewer resources, inaccessible spaces, needing a primary job to sustain yourself but trying to avoid burnout… what has been the motivation for you to keep showing up?
One way I’ve kept doing this work while supporting my family is shifting focus depending on what is currently happening with my children. As a young mum, I was struggling with parenting. My conversations with other migrant parents and seeing their similar patterns of struggle made me want to do something about it. As my kids grew – they are now teenagers – other issues like bullying, suicide, and self-harm started to emerge. I shifted my focus. That is not to say that the Trust has completely moved away from what we delivered in the past; it is just that my own focus is currently on suicide prevention.
In what other ways have your own experiences as a parent fuelled your efforts in this space?
Recently, one of my daughters was bullied by another student in her class. The response from the school was extremely inadequate, and there was a big difference in the treatment my daughter and I received compared to that of student who bulled my daughter and their parent — both of whom were Pākehā. I sent emails that got ignored, I went to the school to try to talk to the teacher who simply told me to email, I requested a hui and got no response. Meanwhile, it turns out the other parent was able to meet with the school, other Asian students were warned not to get involved, and the school decided to simply do nothing.
Later, I was advised that the other student had apologised to my daughter and I should let it go… but only after I reached out to a media friend who made an inquiry to the school. There was no meaningful engagement between the school and myself until they got an inquiry from my friend. As soon as his email was sent out, the school responded and resolved the issue within hours. It made me think a lot. How have other parents like me been treated? Not everyone is well-connected. Do they think Asian parents are easy to dismiss or that it’s right to do that?
This whole thing took more than three months to sort out and my daughter hated going to school all through that period. Imagine the impact of this on young minds. We teach our children to speak up about bullying – but when they do and they see that nothing is being done, what message are they getting? What harm does that do to their wellbeing? As I mentioned, my focus is currently on the issue of teen suicide and it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do to ensure our children can count on respected and support when they need it.
I want to know where you find your hope. How do you look after yourself?
I lie in bed on my days off. I rest as much as I can. I love talking to people so I also find strength from talking to my family and friends. Spending time with my children and hearing them talk passionately about things makes me happy as well. I also get a lot of support and respect from the community, and I feel that’s how I recharge myself. My hope comes from seeing all of us working together to make life better for everyone.
How can people help support the work that you and others are doing in the community?
There are a lot of ways of getting involved. Find a group or an organisation which you feel you can support and volunteer for them. Have conversations with your family and friends. Don’t turn your face around when you see something wrong. If there is no space for something you are passionate about, create it.
Mental health care and support is important, and there is not enough of it, but
1) Why is Te Papa directly involved in servicing this need?
2) Asia is a big place, so which ethnicities are the focus here?