CHICAGO (WLS) -- May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and one North Side performer is tackling mental health in the Asian American community through storytelling.
Pandemic-related stressors along with the rise of anti-Asian racism have brought about a huge increase in mental health needs among Asian Americans.
Actress and producer Mia Park recalls a time early on in the pandemic when a trip to stock up on groceries would cause her anxiety.
"I covered up being Asian so hard. I had the hat. I had these big dark sunglasses on and I had the mask on," she said.
Park feared she would be targeted because she's Asian. That fear turned into reality for her sister who was attacked in Brooklyn during the height of the pandemic.
"She was walking home in her neighborhood in Brooklyn from food shopping and she just got hit from behind," Park said.
Anne Saw, an associate professor of psychology at DePaul University, heads the Chicago Asian American Psychology Lab.
She argues the pandemic has taken a toll on all Americans, but for Asian Americans, it's been compounded by racism.
Pre-pandemic, 1 in 10 Asian Americans experienced psychological distress such as anxiety and depression, Saw said.
Now, it's 4 in 10, according to the Asian American COVID-19 Needs Assessment.
Saw served on the research team for the project, which was published last year.
"A lot of Asian American immigrants, especially, have been socialized and socialized their kids to keep their head down and not get caught up in issues of race," Saw said.
Finding mental health support can be a challenge. Some face structural and cultural barriers.
In Chinatown, the Midwest Asian Health Association works to break down those barriers.
"There is definitely a stigma related to mental health, specifically for this community, in the Asian community," said Allison Precht, Midwest Asian Health Association programs director.
Park is trying to change that narrative through storytelling.
"Once we can be seen and heard authentically and, most importantly, express ourselves authentically, that's when the wholeness and the healing can begin," she said.
Park recently chose a group of people to take a storytelling class to learn how to craft their stories. They gave voice to those stories earlier this week in front of an audience in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
"Doing things, like telling our own stories, is a way to normalize our experiences so that we are less 'othered,'" Park said.
Park is working on more programming to encourage Asian Americans to not only share their stories but to also create plays that explore and showcase the diversity of the Asian American experience.
Saw sees value in Park's efforts.
"We know that having a strong ethnic and racial identity are protective against mental health impacts of racism and other stressors," she said.