Family issues, racism compounded stress on Filipino-American college students during the pandemic

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When Covid-19 cases soared nationwide during the first few months of the pandemic, Amelia Catacutan said that her mental health was at an “all-time low.”

Catacutan, a Filipino-American college student entering her sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it was hard to cope with the social isolation, virtual learning environment and anxiety over her family’s well-being plus the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.

As she adapted to this new reality, Catacutan said she felt like she was being crushed by more and more stress and anxiety piling on top of her, making it difficult to express her emotions and go about her daily life.

Amelia Catacunan, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source: Ciboney Reglos

Catacutan was not alone in experiencing mental health struggles. Nearly half (46%) of Asian-Americans reported anxiety during the pandemic and 15% reported depressive symptoms, according to a Stop AAPI Hate survey.

But another survey conducted by the UC Davis Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies during the first half of 2020 indicates that the pandemic may have had a higher impact on the mental health of Filipino-Americans in particular.

The Filipinx Count Survey found that 81% of Filipino-Americans reported anxiety during the pandemic and 73% experienced depression.

For Filipino-American college students, there were a lot of factors that took a toll on their mental health.

 “The pandemic was just a recipe for disaster for so many Filipino-American students,” said Christine Catipon, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, who works with college students. “They had to balance family duties and working on top of a more rigorous learning environment, like every student did, but also had stressors like moving back into a multigenerational household with intergenerational conflict, cultural pressures, fears about their family’s well-being as health workers and more,” Catipon said.

Family members on the front lines

Catipon said many of her clients had heightened anxiety about family members who were health-care or essential workers during the pandemic. She noted that they had a “constant fear” of those front-line family members contracting the virus.

This was true for Catacutan. She said one of the major sources of her mental health struggles during the pandemic was having parents who worked as health-care workers in the Covid units of their respective hospitals.

Filipinos make up a large portion of the health-care industry in the U.S., with 4% of registered nurses nationwide being Filipino, according to a 2020 report from National Nurses United. During the pandemic, nearly 32% of registered nurses in the nation who have died of Covid-19 and related complications were Filipino, the report said.

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Catacutan said this disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Filipino health workers brought her a substantial amount of stress and anxiety. With her parents working on the frontline, she said she worried tirelessly about their safety, was left to take over household responsibilities and even decided to quit her part-time job at a local restaurant.

“I had to put a lot of things on hold, like my job, just to make sure that I wasn’t risking their safety even more and that I could take care of the house,” Catacutan said.

But Catacutan said her decision to quit her part-time job was also due to heightened anxiety over the rise in hate towards Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, or AAPI, during the pandemic.

Racism targeting Asian-Americans is nothing new in the U.S. There were actually federal policies that barred immigration from Asia until 1965. But inflammatory political rhetoric about the coronavirus, such as the term “China virus,” prompted a surge in hate crimes against AAPI during the pandemic, according to Stop AAPI Hate.

For example, Anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities increased by nearly 150% in 2020, according to data collected by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The data also indicated that the first spike occurred in March and April, the outset of the Covid pandemic when the harmful rhetoric first proliferated.

Catacutan said the rise in AAPI hate stoked anxiety about her own safety, which played a role in her decision to quit her part-time job.

“I had people who refused to touch me when I worked because they were scared that I carried the virus. It was really hurtful and felt really, really othering,” Catacutan said. “I ended up quitting, partly because the industry was a bit slow, but also because I was starting to receive racial remarks. I didn’t feel safe.”

The stress of moving back home

Catipon, who works with college students, noted that many of her Filipino-American clients experienced a decline in their mental health after moving back home with their family during the pandemic.

Catipon said when students go home, they may encounter intergenerational conflict with their immigrant parents, which refers to a disparity in values between different generations.

For example, some Filipino immigrant parents may have differing beliefs about racial issues, an over-emphasis on academics, or may be prone to unsolicited comments about their child’s appearance and life, she said.

This was the case for Carolene Ulep, a rising fifth year at Texas Tech University, who said her mental health worsened after sheltering at home with her family during the pandemic.

Ulep pointed to “toxic” Filipino family dynamics, recounting a time when her dad made unsolicited comments about her appearance. While Ulep said her dad did not intend to hurt her, she said his comments stuck with her long after.

“When he makes those kinds of comments, or when my mom makes comments about things I should be doing when I already have so much on my plate, I start thinking that I can do so much more. But in reality, I can’t,” Ulep said. “So, it’s difficult because I feel pressure to please my parents about these things, but at the same time, I know it’s my life.”

Carolene Ulep, a fifth year student at Texas Tech University
Source: Ashley Parker

Ulep added that Filipino family dynamics also include showing the utmost respect to elders, which leaves her unable to correct her parents when they make hurtful comments.

Roy Taggueg, the author of the Filipinx Count Survey and a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, also underscored the academic pressures that Filipino-American college students face when they move back home, and how it impacts their mental health.

“The pandemic puts students under really intense scrutiny of their parents when it comes to school since many had to go back home,” Taggueg said. “Students get stressed trying to meet their parents’ expectations to do well, and it goes back to the whole idea of ‘utang na loob.’”

“Utang na loob” is a Filipino cultural value that translates to “debt of gratitude.” Taggueg said it describes when Filipinos feel a sense of debt towards their family members who have made sacrifices for them, such as bringing them to the U.S. from the Philippines, raising them and supporting them throughout their lives.

Catacutan said she felt this pressure to excel academically and to “make her parents proud.” She said it caused her to push herself to the extreme when it came to school and increased her mental stress as a result.

“My parents are both immigrants and they both came here from the bottom up. A big part of the pressure comes from feeling so grateful for them so that you feel like you have to spend all of your time accomplishing just so you can pay them back for everything – all the opportunities that they gave you,” Catacutan said.

“And it’s a constant drive from both them and myself to keep going and going. And I never really learned how to take a break, I just get too busy trying to attain the most,” Catacutan continued.

“Sometimes we think that’s what’s healthy for us and it’s not at all.”

No social outlet

Catacutan also said the pandemic left her with “no outlets” to relieve the heightened mental stress from school, pointing to the lack of social interaction.

This was a trend that Catipon, who works with college students, noticed among her own Filipino-American clients. She said for many students, socializing and spending time with peers served as a “respite” from stressors in their lives.

When pandemic shutdowns across the nation cut off the social lives of students, Catipon said their mental health issues were amplified and they were left with no way to cope with new stressors from the pandemic, such as the rise in AAPI hate and fears about their health-care worker parents contracting the virus.

This was true for Jolene Soriano, a rising junior at the University of Michigan, who said social isolation led to a decline in her mental health.

“The pandemic forced me to be in my room alone with my own thoughts a lot,” Soriano said. “I found that to be a very scary thing, because a lot of thoughts were not the greatest and the pandemic really brought out my feelings about the stressful things in my life.”

Jolene Soriano, a junior at the University of Michigan
Source: Kristina Mallabo

“There were plenty of moments during my second semester where I was so overwhelmed with everything,” Soriano continued. “Sometimes I would set off into a crying fit, or I’d start hyperventilating, and then it would feel like a downward spiral.”

Like Soriano, Ulep said her mental health reached a “low point” during pandemic shutdowns that left her unable to socialize with her peers.

She said social isolation led to loneliness and a significant loss in motivation, which became detrimental to her academic performance.

“I was so used to seeing my classmates and friends during school. Being in lockdown just made me really, really sad and unmotivated,” Ulep said. “I just had no sense of responsibility and I didn’t try my best or get the best grades.”

Prioritizing mental health

While Soriano’s mental health undoubtedly took a hit during the pandemic, she said she now feels “more in tune with it” as she prepares to return to in-person classes in the fall.

“As opposed to just ignoring the problems like I did before, the pandemic has forced me to really look at and prioritize my mental health,” Soriano said. “And as we go back to some sense of normalcy, I’m definitely more aware of it, and trying to make sure I’m taking care of myself in that regard.”

This represents the broader change that Taggueg said needs to occur within the Filipino-American diaspora.

Taggueg said many Filipino-Americans and Filpinos still don’t regard mental health as an issue.

“We have been categorized to be a quote-unquote ‘perfect’ migrant in the U.S. that doesn’t cause problems, that adapts to hardships and does what’s needed because we want to work hard,” Taggueg said.

“That outlook has been shaped by the history of colonialism in the Philippines and has been used by generations of Filipinos to make sense of the world. And when it comes to mental health, it doesn’t fit into that world,” he continued.

However, Taggueg said organizations like the Bulosan Center are making progress in researching and raising awareness about mental health issues among Filipino-Americans.

Resources to help

There are several resources available for Filipino-Americans struggling with their mental health, including the Asian American Psychological Association’s Division on Filipinx Americans. The organization promotes awareness of Filipino-American mental health and provides services such as therapy referrals.

The Filipino Mental Health Initiative of San Francisco is another resource that provides services for Filipino-Americans and aims to destigmatize mental health issues. While they are based in Northern California, they provide resources such as a free suicide hotline with trained and experienced counselors, in-person or virtual wellness workshops and “Mental Health First Aid” training in English and Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.

Catipon recommended that college students of all backgrounds who are struggling with their mental health utilize the resources available on college campuses, such as counseling centers.

For those who are apprehensive about seeking counseling or therapy, Catipon encouraged attending workshops or peer mentoring groups within their local community.

Catacunan said that she is hoping to re-establish her “boundaries surrounding school” and focus on balancing her wants and needs.

“As stressful as school and navigating my professional life is, it isn’t everything. I want to reinvigorate my love for myself, my hobbies and the people and places around me,” Catacunan said, adding that it is important for college students to prioritize their mental health.

“There’s a reason students are considered ‘part-time’ or ‘full-time’ — being a student is a physically, mentally and emotionally draining job and sometimes we gloss over the fact that we are doing our best, especially in this altered society,” Catacunan said.

“You know your needs better than anyone else and listening to them is so important for your well-being,” she continued. “People tend to think of mental health as being one big entity when the reality is that it isn’t. It’s a multitude of little things that we neglect and that truly add up. So it’s important to take things step by step in order to thrive in the stressful conditions of academia.”

CNBC’s “College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Annika Kim Constantino is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, studying media studies, music and journalism. She is an intern on CNBC’s politics desk. Her mentor is Dawn Kopecki. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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