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The Mental Health Toll of Activism with Kim Saira    

The Mental Health Toll of Activism with Kim Saira

Art by Andrew Wetmore

By Jessica Schiffer

When the graphic designer and content creator Kim Saira first created her Instagram account early last year, activism wasn’t on her mind. “It was solely an art page at first,” she told TLO from her home in Los Angeles. But in January, when the Stop Asian Hate movement was growing and anti-Asian hate crimes soared, the Filipina and Chinese immigrant felt she had a duty to speak up and educate others on how to be anti-racist.

What she didn’t expect was how quickly that work would take a toll on her mental health. “I found myself getting really angry all the time – I would wake up and the first thing I would do is check my Instagram and see a photo of a beaten Asian person,” said Saira, who became so uneasy she was terrified of going outside. “Every time I did, I would have this pins and needles feeling all over my skin and get really itchy.”

A break from social media helped her gain clarity – sharing and consuming traumatic news on social media, however informative it might have been, was not good for her mental health. “I couldn’t continue doing this, so I transitioned to mental health-related content instead,” she said. Although she hasn’t written off activism entirely, her work is done through a different lens: educating people on mental health and how it differs across cultures.

We spoke to Saira about the importance of bringing mental health into the social justice conversation, the impact of the model minority myth on Asian Americans’ mental health, and why she’s done participating in cancel culture.

One thing that I really like about your account is that you get super specific with it. You're not just talking about broad swaths of people, i.e. Asians, but you look more specifically at how, say, Filipinos view mental health. Is that a conscious choice that you've made?

Yeah, it’s definitely a conscious choice because I'm Filipino and I feel like I can speak best about my own demographic or race. But also, when I was first starting to learn about mental health statistics within the Asian diaspora, I realized that Asia consists of 48 different countries with hundreds of different cultures, and there's absolutely no way I could create a content piece that's like, “what mental health looks like for Asians.” If I were to focus on Chinese people, I would collaborate with a Chinese mental health activist who really understands that culture more. I think being more specific about the demographics experiencing mental health issues is more powerful for the audience.

You called out James Corden earlier this year for his “Spill Your Guts” segment, where celebrities are expected to be grossed out by foods common in Eastern cultures. People were irrationally angry at you for this – how did that impact you and your view on social media activism?

Yeah, oh my gosh. I launched the petition against James Corden in July and I honestly thought that I would have 100% support. Then, immediately after I created it, a huge percentage of the comments and the DMs I got from random people were just negative. It got to a point where I was getting a few death threats every single day. I was still very much in the social justice niche on Instagram at this point and it really impacted my mental health. I always felt like I had a duty as a person of color to be strong because I thought, if I back down, they're gonna win. People who are giving me hate are going to win. I felt it was my duty to be the strong person running this campaign, even though mentally it took a huge toll on me. And I think that just really shows what the expectations are for people of color to endure this type of stuff and be strong. That happened for the whole month of July and by the end of the month, I chose to end the petition, even though he didn't apologize at all. He gave the response of "we won't do it again," but he didn't apologize. No accountability and no donations, which is what I asked for. But I chose to end it anyway because it was impacting my mental health so much and, literally the week after that, I went off of social media for a week and that's when I realized I needed to step away from the social justice content I was doing previously and step into mental health. I think that was kind of a breaking point for me.

Yeah, I can imagine. I feel like it gets really heated very quickly whenever someone states a strong opinion about anything on social media, and it can just become this black hole of arguing and hatred.

Yeah, I think that's a huge problem with social media in general. And I think this is something that I feel a lot of like social justice people, people of color, activists, artists, etc., endure that on social media. For me personally, the question was: how much can I endure while creating anti-racism content until it breaks me? And I felt like that petition was definitely the line for me.

Something you said earlier about having to be strong for your community sort of tapped into this idea of being a model minority. How do you think that stereotype impacts people's mental health?

I'm an immigrant, so growing up in America it's always been ingrained in me that I had to embody the model minority myth. So getting good grades all the time, being quiet and humble. That was told to me by my parents growing up – to be humble, quiet, lowly, to do my due diligence, work hard, be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. That was my life path. When I graduated college, I was working in IT. I didn't pick my college major, my parents picked it for me. So I very much grew up embodying the model minority myth and now looking at it from the outside, where I no longer am embodying that, I realize that it definitely affects a lot of Asian people and their mental health. I just feel like it takes away from [our ability to] discover what we actually want to do. Asian Americans are the least likely group to seek mental health services, and that's because of the model minority belief that we have to constantly be strong and an almost disbelief in mental health resources. 

Do you have any advice for getting more comfortable with talking about mental health if you are an Asian American who has a family that doesn't necessarily have those conversations or believe in them?

I did some research months ago and found that a lot of Asian Americans wait until they're at the very bottom, like their breaking point, to seek mental health help because that's when they are pushed to their limit and they're like, "Okay, I don't know why I feel this way, but now I feel like I have no choice but to seek therapy." And I feel like that shouldn't be the case. If you have access to social media, it's a really powerful tool and I highly suggest just following a lot of Asian people and organizations that are doing the work to destigmatize mental health. Having those resources available to you allows you to learn more about yourself and how you've been feeling. I think with mental health, it's about opening that door of knowledge and we need to talk about it in a more raw way that goes beyond a self-care mask or a spa day. I know that speaking up is difficult for a lot of Asian Americans because of the model minority myth, so a lot of people aren't comfortable talking about it. Even if you're not Asian, it's hard to talk about. But I think having those hard conversations is really important because that lets other people know that it’s okay and they can talk about it, too.

Yeah, it has a domino effect. What works for you in terms of keeping your mental health in check on a daily or weekly basis? 

I'm able to go to therapy weekly now, which is amazing because I wasn't going to therapy for the longest time. So therapy is like my mandatory one-hour break, and I totally understand that it's a privilege to be able to go to therapy, it's really expensive. So I'm grateful for that. Something else that really helped me a lot was my spiritual journey. I'm not religious, but I'm very spiritual and I think my whole journey into self-discovery and even meditation has significantly helped my sense of purpose, especially dealing with depression and just not knowing why I’m here on this earth, I feel that a lot whenever I get depressed. So, being more in touch with my spirituality, meditating or using affirmations, lifts my vibrations up and makes me feel a lot better throughout the day. It sounds very gimmicky, but it's something that really helps me.

You cover so many different topics on your Instagram, from Filipino history to the symptoms of ADHD. How do you decide what to cover? 

I usually cover things I'm thinking about throughout the day. I’ll be like, "oh, I wonder how Filipinos look at ADHD because I have ADHD, and my parents did not believe in ADHD, they don't even know I went to get a diagnosis when I was younger." And I’m like, I can’t be the only person thinking about these things, so I write those topics down and go off of that. A lot of creators go off of trending content but I've learned to leave that stuff to the people who are directly experiencing those things. For example, with indigenous content, I prefer to amplify what indigenous creators and accounts are saying. I feel like that's more powerful than me creating content about indigenous people. 

I like that. So what is coming up next for you? 

I just launched a fundraiser for The LA Mission, which provides food, shelter, and care to unhoused people in Los Angeles. It's the holiday season and it just baffles me that we're all meeting with our families and having all this abundance while some people can't even afford basic necessities. And then in general with my content in the future, I want to create a safe loving space for healing and growth, which is totally separate from what I was previously doing with the social justice content. I would participate in publicly canceling people but I don't want to do any of that anymore. I as a human being have fucked up in the past, I make mistakes all the time even now, and not being afraid to put that on social media is important. I want to create a space of raw humanity. Whereas, what I've been partaking in the past is this black-and-white, one-dimensional thinking between right and wrong. 

What shifted that perspective for you? 

Yeah, there were two things that did it. The first thing was that I knew two social justice creators who were getting publicly canceled on social media. I know these two people personally offline, we talked offline, and I realized what was being posted about them didn't match what was happening offline. I saw how it impacted their mental health and it made me realize, what does calling out a person do, how is that a solution? It doesn't do anything. It's really funny because people use the term "calling people in,” but I don't think it calls anyone in. I think it's harassment and I think it's blaming. But I participated in that for so long because I thought it was calling for accountability, but I think there's a fine line between calling for accountability and calling people in and straight-up canceling them on social media which is just not helpful. 

The second thing was my own fear internally of: what if someone does this to me? I definitely made mistakes in my past that I'm not proud of. I've definitely fucked up. As a human being, to say I'm perfect would be false. So I internalized those feelings and realized that this is the reality we’ve created on social media over the past few years and I don't think this contributes to anyone's growth. It doesn't help anything, it just makes us all afraid, so I'm trying to not do any of that anymore.

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