Good Damage: How Community-Led Healing Challenges the Campus Mental Health System

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Author’s Note: TW: mention of suicidality and trauma

As of late, my mother tells me her father, my grandfather, is getting worse, but not in an order that makes sense. “He can still finish two whole bowls of rice,” she says, “on a good day, but his memory has gotten so bad, so quick.” My grandmother, ten years his junior, is his sole caregiver. My mother feels the magnetic pull of filial piety: “Once I get you settled, I have to go back to China.”

I haven’t talked to my grandparents in years. In middle school my mother used to call me over to greet them with my poorly accented regards before bed, which could still be considered charming then. Now, I duck my head in shame when she videocalls them over WeChat: the irony of the family’s first college graduate who knows less Cantonese at twenty-one than she did at six years old. Truly, what a waste.

Teenagers Lifestyle Casual Culture Youth Style ConceptFamily stress scholar and educator Dr. Pauline Boss proposed a pioneering theory on unresolved grief in the late 1970s centered around the concept of ambiguous loss. Put simply, ambiguous loss is loss with no tangible source of closure, no sign of relief—loss that doesn’t come with a body. Mourning becomes indefinite. Trauma, the hurting space around the void that remembers the irrecoverable. Boss contended that this could manifest from a family member who goes missing, or a loved one who is physically present but emotionally absent.

My ambiguous loss looks a little different. On the surface, I am the perpetrator. My choices, accumulated over the years—to be accepted in spite of my low-income, immigrant background; to desire validation from those who would legislate me out of existence before looking me in the eye; to assimilate at the risk of erasure—have brought me to this point: the granddaughter who goes missing because she doesn’t know how to return. As I grow closer to the kind of conditional belonging the younger me once would have destroyed herself for (and that she did), I mourn the possibilities of the people I could have—I should have—had in my life.

All that is to say, I suffered through much of these realizations in stereotypically rugged individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” silence throughout college—the last four years of my life. Most months of which were marked by oscillating cycles of suicide ideation and planning. Disordered eating and sleep deprivation saturate many of my final semester memories; and my mom, at a loss on the phone, listening to me beg not to go to my own graduation.

When I would, in rare moments of vulnerability, confide in close faculty and staff mentors about my struggles, the typical response I would be met with, colored by undertones of surprise—because I’m just “doing so well”—was, “But you have so much to be proud of. You’ve accomplished everything despite what you’ve gone through.” I’ve never seen the show, but a clip from Netflix’s hit original, Bojack Horseman, appears on my TikTok “for you page” occasionally (because the algorithm, of course, knows us all scarily too well). In it, a Vietnamese American aspiring writer named Diane breaks down after being asked why she absolutely has to write her book of autobiographical essays:

“Because if I don’t, that means that all the damage I got isn’t good damage, it’s just damage. I have gotten nothing out of it, and all those years I was miserable was for nothing. I could’ve been happy this whole time and written books about girl detectives and been cheerful and popular and had good parents, is that what you’re saying? What was it all for?

If I hadn’t been a conventionally “good” student, I wonder how my “damage” would have been perceived. This is the story and insomnia-inducing question of many children of immigrants and women of color. Our damage, our intergenerational trauma, the sacrifices of our parents, and the sacrifices of our parents’ parents must be “justified” in some way—ideally, by our attainment of academic, professional, and then financial success. Our legacies are simultaneously our burdens.

While trying to seek help during my final semester, I was referred to my campus counseling and psychological services. I hesitated. I did end up filling out the appointment request form, but missed the office’s call and never returned it. Truthfully, I was afraid of being not understood. In my gut, I didn’t think traditional Western talk therapy was going to make me feel any better, nor did I want to explain to a therapist that didn’t look like me that racial and gendered trauma is endemic to my very existence.

In May 2023, I joined a community-based support group for Asian American women and femmes dedicated to fostering healing justice through connectedness. So far, I’ve attended two sessions, two hours each, and the experience has been transformative in every aspect of the word. During the first meeting, we shared our liberation stories; in other words, how liberation feels, looks, smells, tastes, and sounds for us. My answer was one I’ve been sitting on for years, though I didn’t know it at the time: “When I finally see my mom at rest, when I see her hands find stillness.”

The mounting national conversations surrounding the importance of college students’ wellbeing have been anchored in demands for more institutional investment in robust mental health resources. I argue that community-led, culturally competent services should be a major element of this ask. Our current Eurocentric, biomedical system of mental health care mirrors many of the systems that have inflicted—and continue to inflict—historical harm on marginalized communities across the world. Under it, I can’t help questioning if my damage is the good kind, or if my healing journey “looks right.” Being re-grounded in my community has reminded me that you can hurt and heal at the same time, that the mourning and the love are inseparable, and, most importantly, that “nothing about us, is for us, without us.”

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Beatiful piece. Very convincing, emotive and concise!. Like a sutile dance of mental imagery.

    I came, among others, with the conclusion that part of the conflict is the different values used when assessing accomplishment and suffering even between confidants. That most often goes urecognized by at least some of the participants. Which can be addressed among people with similar or the same values.

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  2. What a pretty young lady you are, Angel, thank you for sharing your story. And I can’t agree more, Western psychology went the wrong direction decades ago, or longer – even for white women.

    I agree, “that community-led, culturally [and non-paternalistic] competent services should be a major element of” the healing professions. But, unfortunately – since we all live in an historically paternalistic society – we do have paternalistic, bad systems in Western civilization … like the scientifically “invalid” DSM “bible” billing industries … who systemically and proactively cover up child abuse, by DSM design, for the mainstream religions.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1
    https://books.google.com/books id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_
    r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    We need “helpers” who can actually honestly bill to help child abuse survivors (especially since all children were psychologically abused during the Covid era), and those who know “our children are our of future,” so “maintaining the status quo” in Western civilization – which is maintaining a “pedophile empire” at this point – is a really bad idea.

    https://pedoempire.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/PedoEmpire-Flyer-One-Page.pdf

    Let’s hope and pray for the “healing professionals” to some day acknowledge the reality of child abuse, and some day stop aiding and abetting the pedophiles, and other child abusers … at the expense of the legitimately concerned mothers.

    “The dirty little secret of the two original educated professions” needs to die.

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  3. Despite big differences in cultural background and age, there are many similarities in our emotionally difficult situations when we were growing up, our responses by being “good” students, our finding hope and perhaps healing in a community, and in our disappointment with psychotherapy.

    In my case, I was in and out of therapy for over 50 years. Therapy was the “right” thing to do and so I did it. There are so many ways in which it did not help, and hurt me instead, but I did not have the awareness to see and understand that. That lack of awareness was part of the issues I went into therapy with, I claim. And therapy did not help with that.

    I tried support groups even when I was doing therapy, because it seemed like that was something I needed and longed for. They didn’t help a lot, either, although I enjoyed the fellowship, until I lucked into an informal support group that developed out of a meetup group I was attending. Although I am white, with ancestors who had been in the U.S. for several to many generations, I am analytical and introverted, so my temperament combined with my early trauma combined with social skills I never learned meant that I didn’t fit in well, and certainly didn’t feel that I fit in well, with most social groups or eventually with my family of origin.

    This isn’t the place for me to list the reasons why I now feel that therapy did/could NOT help me. But what HAS helped me is being with other women who are somewhat like me, who can accept things I felt could never be accepted by society in general, and not my family and not therapists, either.

    I’m not sure that it helps to blame parents, as psychologists encouraged us to do back in the day when young people from white or at least middle-class families were the only ones who could afford therapy. Or to blame “Eurocentric . . . systems that have inflicted—and continue to inflict—historical harm on marginalized communities across the world.” Oppressive systems oppress EVERYONE. Human beings and our systems are still very limited. And the “sciences” of psychology and psychotherapy, western or not, are VERY, VERY limited. With few trying to make it better, that I can see. (I tried years ago to get a Ph.D. but did not succeed.)

    To be healthy, people need ways to overcome oppression, to find liberation as you said. Years and years of therapy did not help me. Like you, I found that grounding and belonging IN a community can be transformative. Despite me being over 70 now. Better late than never, though I often thought it would be never. Community and belonging are SO important for mental health.

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  4. As a college provider, I hear you and see you. Our western office of sit and talk therapy is antiquated but many of us cling to it as the only lifeline we know. I used to use the outdoors and movement till being a black man of 6ft and 215 lbs. became dangerous. We are going to keep losing young people if we are afraid and unwilling to change. Mental health is not static, and we are not supposed to be stagnant. Our communities and group work offers us so much more than the idea of the individual therapist can ever do. Nature, movement, drumming or even improv can be used more effectively for not just nonwhite students.

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  5. Thank you so much for this piece. I love hearing how the community-based support group helped you connect to liberation in ways that would be impossible in the current “mental health care” system, with its warped focus on individual pathology. I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that we as a society need to allocate resources more toward this sort of mutual aid / peer support and less toward our awful mainstream mental health care system in its current configuration and paradigm. P.S. For what it’s worth, I say that as someone who is also a licensed clinical psychologist.

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  6. I love this article and this family, hope you know you are valued here, your voice is needed and is helpful. America is so geographically isolated, we have devised systems of management that rely on paper based contracts and paper tallies of distant scientists focused on over-views – who live and work and study too far from the people they manage, to learn more detailed ways to see how labor is divided OUTSIDE the formal work and study places. The form that supports all members is a village. Not therapy done in separate settings, whether groups or individual, not life in individual families, for some of those survive and fit into village communication, some dont, but our therapeutic systems aim to replace those connections by using privacy and individual care, which does nothing to help individuals connect with neighbors and others in their immediate environment. Supporting (not punishing) those that don’t blend well with the neighborhood and helping all to value and develop links together regularly, is what children need, a stable adult environment they can trust, one that does not rely on individuals alone, but all find models and support. This is a woman-centered view of work, what is needed to raise children through vulnerable years, then through the transitions from home to adult life. Our western model has seen women participating in the work world as the ideal, but to save the planet we need to support life outside of institutions, with generosity, humor, patience, qualities easier to find in villages, where people see each other working and living over years.

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  7. Angel’s deeply moving article sheds light on the entrenched insensitivity characteristic of most western talk therapy. Thank goodness she found a place of true connection instead of something that pushes reams of Eurocentric pathology and conformity.

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  8. Thank you, Angel. Your deeply moving story sheds light on the entrenched insensitivity that pervades most western talk therapy. Thank goodness you’ve found a safe place of true connection that understands the pain of ambiguous loss rather than something that relies on reams of Eurocentric psychopathology to enforce its (implied) demands for conformity. I wish you the best in all your endeavors.

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