Reimagining Asian Mental Health – a reflection

Reimagining Asian Mental Health – a reflection

Earlier this year people from across Aotearoa and further afield came together to reimagine Asian mental health. As part of our Asian Mental Health project, the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, led by Mehwish Mughal and supported by Grace Gassin, brought together mental health professionals, advocates, activists, and academics to speak on the issues and ways forward, surrounded by a room full of passionate individuals. Here, participant Tenisha Kumar reflects on the kaupapa of the day.

The keyword for me in this hui was ‘reimagine’. To reimagine is to acknowledge the work of those before of us, while recognising that a shift was necessary. The hui represented an opportunity to learn from the past, reflect on the present, and explore possibilities.

“Do we even want to be included?”

The day opened with keynote speaker Dr Ruth De Souza and her vibrancy, truth, and challenge. Moving beyond inclusion, she poignantly asked, “do we even want to be ‘included’?”. This resonated with me as I hear the buzzwords ‘diversity and inclusion’ more and more and feel myself cringe, wondering if this is just giving rise to performative and momentary change. Inclusion may allow us the proximity to Eurocentric ways of existing, but true disruption and systemic transformation hinges less on inclusion, and more on the decolonial political agenda that Ruth suggests. If we are included in spaces that were never designed with us or by us, are we just perpetuating or replicating norms that are inherently exclusive?

A woman in a bright pink and orange dress stands on stage, smiling, addressing a crowd
Dr Ruth DeSouza at the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, 18 March 2023. Photo by Nishhza Thiruselvam / Twitter

Dr De Souza proposes collaboration as the way forward, using the analogy of creating “constellations of co-resistance”* with others who are already doing the work. The mental health challenges faced by diasporic, migrant Asian communities will never be resolved by working in isolation; we do not need heroes or singular entities because, as Dr De Souza observes, “it’s not cool to be the first at something … who are we taking with us?”.

This also prompted me to consider the expectations placed on those that are seen as the ‘hero’ figures or those pioneering change. This is a heavy responsibility to carry and one that will undoubtedly come with trial and tribulation. We do not need competition, we need community, therefore our “constellations” carry us, hold us respectfully accountable, and support growth.

Kelly Feng stands on stage in front, talking to a crowd out of shot. Behind her is a presentation being projected onto the wall
Kelly Feng at the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, 18 March 2023. Photo by Grace Gassin

“It’s a burden to carry resilience”

Kelly Feng from Asian Family Services shared data and statistics on Asian mental health and wellbeing. From this, various suggestions were made to improve services through workforce development, culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health support, greater support for Asian youth health, and recognition of diversity through better data collection.

Social justice advocate Rafiqah Sulaiman Binti Abdullah then movingly shared her lived experiences and the exhaustion of being called “resilient”: “I want to say it hurts everywhere … it’s a burden to carry resilience. Resilience is a band aid.”

Co-founder of Adhikaar Aotearoa Cayathri Divakalala also spoke of the resilience of LGBTQIA+ people of colour. The prejudice that they experienced came from between and within marginalised communities. Cayathri noted that rather than “coming out”, many of them were attempting to “come in” to the community. Resilience is an endurance race our communities should not be expected to participate in.

Rafiqah Abdullah stands on stage, talking to a crowd out of shot
Rafiqah Abdullah at the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, 18 March 2023. Photo by Grace Gassin

After lunch, workshops with Nishhza Thiruselvam encouraged us to think about the language and concepts we often use; words like charity, mutual aid and solidarity. Some hui participants were clear that they did not subscribe to certain terms (like “charity”), while others found way of explaining these words in their own language, encouraging us to think of the knowledge we already possess.

While discussing liberation, a member from the audience gloriously broke into song, referring to the Spice Girls hit, Wannabe: “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want, so tell me what you want, what you really really want.” Amongst the deep reflection, there was laughter, and it reminded me that joy and hope are forms of resistance too.

Nishhza Thiruselvam stands on stage in front, talking to a crowd out of shot. Behind her is a presentation being projected onto the wall
Nishhza Thiruselvam at the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, 18 March 2023. Photo by Grace Gassin

These conversations also highlighted the fact that complexity, nuance, and multiple realities could respectfully exist alongside each other. It was clear that we were not a homogenous group; however, we could relate to each other through the stories, hopes, and struggles that drive our desire for change.

Witnessing this underlines the fact that we need not settle for the shallow solution of tokenistic ethnic representation in “mainstream” services, the greater depth and breadth of understanding needed to be truly responsive to the all communities we seek to serve is a realistic and necessary goal.


This left me wondering about another common word used in Asian mental health conversations – “stigma”.

As a counsellor working with our youth population and ethnic communities, people voluntarily occupy therapeutic spaces with me. They do not describe feelings of shame when they seek support, they show up for themselves and describe a sense of pride and self-awareness. So why do we assume there is a self-imposed stigma or shame when our Asian diasporic communities seek mental health support?

Cayathri Divakalala stands on stage in front, talking to a crowd out of shot
Cayathri Divakalala at the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, 18 March 2023. Photo by Grace Gassin


Mental health and wellbeing have always been prioritised in our communities, however, it has gone by different names: yoga, ayurveda, qi gong, and others. The model of assessment, diagnosis, and medicalised treatment is a Eurocentric lens, and perhaps we are too focused on trying to find ways to sit alongside the Eurocentric systems.

Rather, we as diaspora need to decolonise our own minds and tongues. We have always known how to heal; through movement, dance, storytelling, sound, food, connecting with those above and the land below. Nourishing our communities through these practices is part of our healing.

The onus is on us to not only reimagine collective Asian mental health, but to check our own biases too.

Five people sitting on chairs on stage talk in front of a crowd
Panel chair Simran Saini (far left) and panellists (from second-left) Samuel Cho, Maria Milmine, Aram Kim, and Rita Chi-Ying Chung at the Reimagining Asian Mental Health hui, 18 March 2023. Photo by Grace Gassin

Moving beyond heroes and champions

The day was rounded out with a panel of speakers featuring Aram Kim, Maria Milmine, Rita Chi-Ying Chung, and Samuel Cho, facilitated by Simran Saini.

During this conversation, Dr Ruth De Souza’s challenge earlier that morning was cemented as the panel revisited the need to move beyond heroes and champions for sustainable change. Academic/activist Rita Chi-Ying Chung highlighted that in 20 years, one in four people living in Aotearoa will be of Asian descent, therefore our futures depend on building sustainable constellations of co-resistance. Counsellor Maria Milmine invited us to lean into humility and vulnerability to build those constellations.

Throughout the day, I found myself gravitating to others and seeking connection. Other times, I leaned into moments of quiet reflection, pondering the discussions that took place.

“Trust yourself”

It was during one of these quiet reflective moments that I decided to open the wisdom cookie that I had picked up earlier in the day from Satellite’s interactive Fortune Cookie Cart, hired specially for the hui. I opened my wisdom cookie to read “trust yourself”. This affirmation felt serendipitous. A reminder that while the path forward may not always be clear, I was forming a constellation and gathering in solidarity, because the answer lies in community – it always has. The community approach prevents burnout, creates hope and sustainable change, and seeks to harness the skills, knowledge, and resources by many.

In the words of Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


*Ruth acknowledged Indigenous scholars such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson for creating the concept of “constellations of co-resistance” and inspiring her keynote.


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