Interviewed by Linh Nguyen
Can you tell me about the Yellow Tulip Project and why you wanted to get involved in this organization?
The Yellow Tulip Project is a student-led nonprofit organization that works to smash this stigma surrounding mental illness. That is our mission statement, but we also focus on an array of mental illnesses rather than just focus on depression and suicide. We try to incorporate all different perspectives from different backgrounds, demographics, etc. to become a more inclusive organization because we do realize that as a predominantly white nonprofit, there are other perspectives toward mental health issues as well so we want to include those perspectives within our mission statement.
As for me, I wanted to get involved because I struggled with my own mental health in the past, and it's something that I never actually got treated for. It was something that I wish I did get treated for or I wish I got the resources for. I know that for some people it may be hard to actually get the treatment but being able to have the resources and the support system that YTP currently offers, I think it adds a little bit of comfort and support to someone's mental health journey and makes it a little bit easier.
What do you think about the accessibility of mental health resources in general?
I think access to mental health resources is kind of a varying scenario. When you think about mental health, you think of therapy and prescriptions, and then on top of these two, there's the form of support you get from your environment. For the first few, which is therapy and prescriptions, it's a little bit harder to obtain than the support aspect because sometimes families don't have the financial resources to provide for those in need, and then oftentimes health insurances do find a way to scam their way out of excluding mental health treatments, so that's another problem on its own, which prolongs the entire mental health journey for someone and can make the situation more detrimental in the long term.
In terms of support, it's also being able to ground yourself in an environment where mental illness isn't necessarily stigma but something you can talk about freely and that itself is an entirely different process that people have to go through. It really does depend on the community you're in like whether or not you're supporting people, whether they believe that stigma around mental illness is worth smashing because you have other concepts like toxic masculinity that are up in the air, which throws a barrier at men's mental health specifically.
Then you also have to worry about treatment, whether that's therapy or prescription, and how you'll get access to that, especially if you're in a household that may not view mental illness as a real concept just because there are people who have those beliefs, so it's a variety of range in terms of the accessibility. Overall, I think it's something we're progressing toward as we begin to raise awareness about mental health issues and confront the issues of accessibility to it.
What are the ways we can work towards a society that puts lots less stigma on mental health issues?
The easiest way to destigmatize treatment is through legislation where Congress makes it law that healthcare providers shouldn't exclude mental illness/mental health treatment away from the rest of their insurance because that puts physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing as two different categories, but, in the end, they both contribute to an individual's overall health. Separating the two categories is harmful and it's not helping anyone's well-being get any better because you can't have physical well-being without mental and vice versa. We need a congress that supports and recognizes that insurance companies shouldn't be able to exclude these treatments because it's sometimes costly to get mental treatment in the first place. This is something that we need to recognize as a society because it starts breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness.
At the end of the day, It's about having that conversation and being able to discuss this conversation about mental health no matter who you are. You should be able to explain why you're feeling the way you are and not be afraid to express yourself. It’s important to just be authentic and genuine to the actual struggles you're going through, rather than putting on a facade and acting in a way to conceal your feelings. These things will end up preventing you from getting the treatment that you need. At large, the easiest thing you can do is just to have a conversation about it with someone, just because that conversation alone not only provides support and the comfort of knowing that somebody else has listened to you and is there for you, but also that conversation can be passed on to other people. It's kind of a domino effect from there, where you can get it going, and get more people to start talking about it, which overall makes mental health become an issue that's less stigmatized. It's all about building the basic blocks and going from there.
Where are you on your journey towards addressing your own personal mental health issues?
In middle school, I actually experienced severe depression and suicidal thoughts so that's the big bulk of where I was. I was in a state where I was trying to figure out who I am and discover what are my values as a member of my community. With being able to see these things and reflecting upon them, I've seen a large amount of growth in both my mental health and my care for my well-being. I'm more fortunate to be on the upper hand of recovering from my mental health journey and being able to have a story to share with others, whereas this isn't something a lot of people are at yet, especially with being comfortable enough to share their story with the public. To put things into perspective, I'm doing as best as I can, especially during the pandemic. However, I feel like there's still a lot more I can do. Just having this conversation right now, I can still feel the stigma building up inside me about telling my story, but it's definitely been a long way since middle school.
You mentioned the stigmatism of mental health, specifically with men. Can you talk a little bit about the intersectionality between toxic masculinity and the stigmatism of men's mental health?
Toxic masculinity perpetuates this persona that men are expected to act tough and emotionless where they're not supposed to show their emotions or discuss them. It reinforces this notion where you should push aside everything and put the end goal as your sole tunnel vision. Often, your tunnel vision is to provide for your family, and anything else that gets in your way, you push aside and simply not care about it. When you have the intersection between toxic masculinity and mental health, you would expect men to put their mental health aside even if they face things like depression, eating disorders, and other mental health illnesses. It adds to this idea that you should put the wellbeing of your family before yourself and you should put yourself second, thinking it is okay because you need to provide for somebody else. However, this constant constraint where you are putting yourself second can overtime become very harmful, especially to men with the idea of toxic masculinity because you never get to prioritize your self-care and your well-being first. When we talk about this intersectionality, we have to realize that for men, the consequences of neglecting your mental health is extremely detrimental to the conversation about smashing the stigma because there isn't necessarily a stigma around women talking about their mental health and again that kind of plays into the idea of sexism and to intersectionality within that as well. You have this gender spectrum and then you have two different personas going up for who can talk about emergence and who can't. We have to ask ourselves how we smash those two stigmas without necessarily enforcing the structure like sexism and toxic masculinity.
What's your overall opinions/experiences on the Asian community and its intersections with mental health struggles?
This is a disclaimer that a lot of this is family stuff that I've gone through and my family has progressed beyond this. They are the first generation of immigrants from our family so it's difficult to adjust to America especially from the culture that they came from. When I talk about Asian American’s mental health, keep in mind that it is framed around my experiences with my own family.
Earlier in my lifetime, my parents reinforced the notions of toxic masculinity. In traditional household values, there's this standard where men shouldn't talk about their feelings and your eye is to be wealthy and affluent just like your white counterparts. They paint Caucasian people to be the epitome of what it looks like to succeed and live a comfortable life, which neglects not only my mental health but everything else like my emotions and my values. Within the Asian American community, I think progressing into American assimilation is a different battle than everything else in terms of mental health so not only do you have to have this conversation about mental health with your family but you also have to talk about why they have to dismantle this family culture that they built from their heritage and why that's not necessarily true to who we are. Being able to have conversations can be really tough, and afterward, it's definitely something that a lot of people don't really want to talk about because again it's that mindset of model minorities being like "rise and shine; nine to five work hours; everything else aside, you need to focus on your family; get that money.” I guess there's a barrier of family values. There’s this mentality that it is family values versus mental health and that it's not really one or the other, but in reality, it goes hand in hand. It'll be an uphill battle, but I think it's a conversation that we need to have.
With the Asian American community at large, I think it's a conversation that not many people play into, especially I'd say first-generation immigrants Asian American families who have struggled and came from a different country and then move to America to live a better life because if we're being honest, a lot of families do immigrate to the states because their parents wanted a better life for them and obtain that American Dream. Because of this, they really neglect this idea of emotion-talking and confronting mental health issues, so it takes a second generation of families to have this conversation and begin destigmatizing the conversation about mental health and within the Asian American community at large.
In what ways have we progressed in terms of involving conversations about mental health and reallocating resources to communities in need? In which ways are we still lacking?
One big thing across America nationwide is that similar to how we have 911 for police emergencies, the Federal Communications Commission has approved 988 as the number for the national suicide hotline. Being able to get a three-digit number rather than type out the full 10 digits is a complete big step towards destigmatizing mental illness where you don't have to go through the process of typing out the full number. I know seven numbers don’t seem like a big deal, but being able to have the equivalent of being able to make an emergency call for your mental health like being able to make emergency calls to 911 is a drastic step for America as a society and as a whole.
Other progressions we've done are through different legislations. We're slowly making legislation, not necessarily at the national level, but, at the state level. We have seen it in Oregon and we have seen it in Maine last year, but being able to use mental health as a reason to get excused from school is something that just came into effect. It’s amazing to see that we have legislation that prioritizes mental health. While it's not one giant step we're looking for, It's those tiny steps that add up and make the big picture about destigmatizing mental illness.
I think we have also progressed in terms of the conversation itself. Overall, whether you're learning about it from the Yellow Tulip Project, Active Mines, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or any other organizations like Nami, you’re still getting involved in the conversation about mental health. It’s great to see that we have organizations that are willing to lift this conversation and spread it through every nook and cranny of the US and globally. This boils down to a community or national effort towards mental health despite different organizations having different routes, so that is a great thing to see in terms of the progress that we have done as a country.
In terms of things we could see more of, I think that intersectionality is the biggest thing especially during a time where police brutality is put in the spotlight. There are a lot of ways to address the mental health systems within the policing criminal justice system in general but also criminal reform. It brings up this structural system that we have used for centuries and puts it into perspective where we ask ourselves if we were to get rid of these systems, how we would use our resources differently, and a lot of it comes down to mental health resources. I think we have seen across the country this year that schools are now removing SROs and replacing them with mental health advisors and more guidance counselors who are more certified to deal with these conversations. We have seen the research for it as well where it is found that if we do focus more on mental health resources and begin to address people's needs and prioritize their treatment then we do reduce crime and poverty. It comes down to knowing that many issues are caused by mental health and if we just focus on addressing these mental health issues rather than addressing the side effects of what mental health does to people then we actually solve a lot of the issues that revolve around the stigma of mental health and other issues that are the direct/indirect effect of mental health.
What are your hopes for the future of the Yellow Tulip Project and advocacy for mental health concerns in general?
I'd love to see the project grow into an international organization. We've touched foot on it a little bit. We have an ambassador in Japan, a few in the Caribbean area, and then I think one in South America, so we're definitely hitting the mark on being an international organization. Of course, I am seeing the perspective of what mental health looks like in the US because other countries might not have the cultural tolerance that we've developed as a nation and we're still fighting for that cultural tolerance here. However, being able to spread this message far and wide, being able to have this conversation, and develop new initiatives and new programming for other countries to adjust to, I think that's something I would love to see YTP do. I would also love to see the national US government, in general, recognize the issue as well, and put more of a foothold on it, and actually do more than implement policies that don't really benefit anyone except the rich.
I wish a lot more mental health organizations worked together in terms of addressing mental health issues. This is an issue across all nonprofits, but I think oftentimes there are nonprofits that share similar goals, but they focus on growing their own organization, rather than working with other nonprofits that share a similar mission. It's kind of a balance of organizations needing to recognize that it's not necessarily about whether or not your organization grows, it's about whether or not you're actually going to meet your organizational mission statement, whether that be by yourself or working with other organizations.
With our current pandemic, there has been a rise in mental health concerns, especially among young people. What's your message to people who are kind of dealing with mental health concerns right now or who have been dealing with these mental health concerns in the past?
Although I'm not a licensed professional or anything, I'll share my experiences.
FIRST: Don't be afraid to reach out to your friends or family, especially your friends if you're not comfortable yet talking to your family. Try to find at least one person who you're willing to talk to. Just vent to yourself on occasion and don't feel like you have to bottle everything up. Don't feel like you have to be strong for everyone, especially I know for people who may have to hold a lot of weight on their shoulders. It's okay to let that shoulder fall down a little bit and just relax, pick yourself up, figure out where your mental state is at and then go from there.
SECOND: Don't be afraid to confront your own mental health issues with yourself. That's something I wish I grew to know sooner. But having that conversation with yourself and being able to come to realizations that you, as a person, are struggling is an important step in getting the treatment and the outreach that you need in terms of your mental health and your well-being.
LASTLY: Despite the current climate of “chase that bag” and “do what you need to do to provide for yourself,” take some time to enjoy life because with the way that everything's going right now: the political climate, the natural environment around us, and everything. You really don't know what's ahead for us, and it's important to relish the moments you have now and enjoy yourself. So, even if you feel like you have so much that you need to do if you have like 20 things on your checklist, at least make sure one of them is taking care of yourself and just being able to relax for an hour before you continue on with your day because that can make all the more difference in your life.
You can reach out to Conrad on Instagram @connnradg & learn more about the Yellow Tulip Project here
MORE MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-8255 or text ANSWER to 839863
The Trevor Project: a leading national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Provide Guides & Resources on Mental Health for Teens/Young Adults
Active Minds: nonprofit organization that supports mental health awareness and education for young adults through research & advocacy
The Global Coalition on Youth Mental Health: initiative that aims to amplify the many voices on youth mental health worldwide. They engage with leading mental health organizations, communities, and individuals to galvanize awareness, collaboration, and action