From suicides to family crises, anxiety to isolation, the mental health of Asian New Zealanders is deteriorating and Covid is making it worse, says an advocacy group calling for a targeted mental health strategy for the country's diverse Asian communities.
For years, the family of an elderly woman witnessed her slow decline. It got to the point where she was setting furniture on fire to ward off evil spirits, and wandering out half-dressed in the middle of the night battling the same ghosts.
Only then did the family reach out to health services, where she was promptly diagnosed with psychotic illness and treated.
They did not seek help earlier because in their culture, it was frowned upon to think that something was wrong with your parent. The right thing to do was to accept her for what she was, and endure the challenges that came with it.
Families in crisis
This is one of the many real-life cases confronting frontline clinicians working with New Zealand's diverse Asian communities, and the problems are getting worse, says an advocacy group.
The National Asian Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy and Advisory, or NAMAA, says demand for mental health services amongst these communities has surged since the outbreak of Covid-19.
The Asian Helpline, a telephone counselling service offered in eight languages, recorded a 150 per cent surge in the number of calls from May to July this year. Referrals for non-gambling counselling sessions saw a 138 per cent increase over the same period, says Ivan Yeo, a NAMAA member and deputy director of Asian Family Services which runs the helpline.
The group is seeing more complex family distress cases due to lockdown and border closures, like increased family violence, inter-generational household conflict, families struggling with separation from loved ones when welcoming a new baby or dealing with grief.
The same communities are also under financial strain, with Asians disproportionately represented in hospitality and services, key industries facing the headwinds of a long Covid recession.
Shame and stigma
By the time psychiatrist Dr Aram Kim met the elderly lady with psychosis, she had lost nearly a decade to the illness - years of meaningful conversations and positive family life that could have been, if she had got treatment early. Her late diagnosis also meant she never recovered fully, said Kim, who chairs the Korean Community Wellness Society.
"There is a strongly held stigma and discrimination against mental health issues across many Asian communities, so people struggle to identify issues that are developing, and get life-changing help early," he said.
Research points to low utilisation rates of mental health services for Asians compared to other ethnic groups in New Zealand.
So despite the increased mental health care needs today, NAMAA says its clients are unlikely to seek care from mainstream services and will continue to rely on Asian providers they trust because of language and cultural differences.
Why it matters
"Regardless of ethnicity, we know that health inequities in any group will incur high costs to society," said Kim, referring to direct impacts on health and social cohesion, and harms like addiction and suicide.
Asians make up 15 per cent of the current population and are projected to overtake Maori as the second largest ethnic group in New Zealand by 2023.
"This means a very large proportion of working age New Zealanders will be of Asian heritage in the next decade or two, so the health of this population growing up now is critical not only for the physical and mental health of the whole population, but for New Zealand's economy as a whole," he said.
NAMAA has started an online petition to the Health Ministry calling for targeted mental health support for Asian communities.
Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.