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Statement from Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of Mental Health America

The horrifying shootings of eight people in the greater Atlanta area are a tragedy in and of themselves. Innocent people are dead. At least six were Asian Americans, at least seven were women.

While the shooter is reported to have said that race was not a motive in these shootings, nevertheless these still should sharpen our focus on racism in America and its uneven impact on our mental health. During the past year, Asian Americans as a group have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Some have been singled out by nationality as responsible for the pandemic. Others have experienced hate crimes and violence. All have experienced the trauma of blame.

Before these shootings, our 2020 Mental Health America screening data, gathered from 2.5 million total mental health screeners throughout the year, showed people who identify as AAPI already disproportionately experienced increasing anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking.

These MHA data reflect only the experiences of a help-seeking population. They probably underestimate the experiences of the entire population, and do not measure those of people who do not, or cannot, reach out to us.

But among those who did, here is the bottom line. In 2020, relatively more people who identified as AAPI took a screening compared to other population groups. And as their numbers increased dramatically, so too did the severity of their results.

  • The percentage of those screening for anxiety and depression who identified as AAPI increased from 10 percent of the screening population in 2019 to 17 percent in 2020.
  •  By the end of the year, the percentage of those AAPI screeners with moderate to severe anxiety was greater than 80 percent.
  • Just prior to the pandemic, 79 percent of AAPI screeners were moderate-to-severe for depression – one of the lowest levels in recent years. But by the end of the year, the percentage had grown to more than 86 percent – among the highest.

In addition, those experiencing frequent suicidal or self-harm thinking grew from 34 percent at the beginning of the year (after averaging 38 percent throughout 2019) to more than 45 percent by the end of the year.

The Atlanta shootings were the latest in a long line of violent acts that resulted disproportionately in the deaths of non-white people. We should endeavor to make them the last.

But that won’t happen without a national effort aimed both at addressing the mental health impacts of violence and reducing acts of violence themselves.

I’m so sorry to have to ask this question, but it is something we are all thinking today. In the context of all the scapegoating that Asian Americans have endured during the past year, is it really any wonder that someone – in this instance a 20-year-old white man – thought it was somehow acceptable in any universe to open fire on innocent people?

But I am not sorry to ask this one. Will this finally be the time that we pause and reflect on how and why some people in our country bear greater trauma than others and how we can take steps not just to mourn victims and pray for their loved ones, but to build safe spaces and mental health equity for all? Mental Health America aims to do just that.