Mental health can be a taboo subject in the Asian American community.
Our mission at Rock the Boat is to bring attention to issues that aren’t often discussed. Nearly 20 percent of Asian American high school students report considering suicide, with Asian American females being twice as likely as males to attempt suicide (according to the CDC). Research shows that Asian Americans are 2–5 times less likely than white Americans to seek mental health services, and this statistic disproportionately affects our community, young and old.
That’s why Grace Noh is a fulfilling a dire need. Grace works as an art therapist at Apex for Youth, a NYC-based non-profit that delivers possibilities to underserved Asian American youth through education, enrichment, and mentoring programs.
Grace’s interest in art therapy was spurred by its healing power in her own life, leading her to get her Masters in Art Therapy at NYU (one of only 25 art therapy graduate programs in the U.S.). In 2016, she was selected to design an adult coloring book that was distributed to NYU students to help reduce stress. She now works with Asian immigrant youth at Apex for Youth as their first and only art therapist.
We interviewed Grace to learn more about her personal experience coming into art therapy, how she overcame challenges, and what the landscape of mental health issues for Asian Americans looks like.
RTB: How did your upbringing influence your career choice?
GN: I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea and moved to Toronto in high school. When I first arrived in Canada, I was one of two Asian students at school. Because of language barriers and cultural differences, I had a hard time adjusting to the new community. The most difficult part was making new friends — I vividly remember those moments when I felt very isolated, I often had lunch by myself and did not speak to anyone at school.
During this time, I found art as my safe outlet. Through art, I was able to build self-confidence and build relationships with my classmates. It also helped me to release repressed feelings and stress in a safe, productive, and creative way, which led me to enter the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in Chicago as a fine arts major.
In my junior year, I took an art therapy course provided through the graduate program of SAIC. And something clicked. It was fascinating to discover how art can clinically help people express their feelings without words, and how art therapy can act as such a safe outlet for people to discharge their stress and difficult feelings.
Learning about art therapy allowed me to heal myself. I wanted to share this powerful healing outlet with others.
RTB: How do you think your personal experience helped you connect with the Asian immigrant youth population, specifically?
GN: My own experience as a newcomer and an immigrant in Canada has given me greater empathy and compassion towards immigrant youth, which allows me to understand their needs.
As a teenager, I wasn’t able to talk about certain stressors and hid negative feelings from my friends. Beyond just a language barrier, there was a cultural element. Since I was young, I was told not to talk about shameful topics with others or share my authentic feelings. However, repressing those feelings can negatively affect anyone’s psychological and emotional states. I learned through my grad program that my severe migraines in high school weren’t normal but in fact, caused by stress and anxiety; they were psychosomatic symptoms. I also suffered from Selective Mutism, which arose from my high level of anxiety at that time.
As an Asian art therapist who is fully aware of the cultural Asian backdrop when it comes to mental health, I hope I can create more safe spaces for Asian immigrant youth, so they can learn to talk about their authentic feelings and improve their coping skills.
I wanted to work with Asian immigrant youth in a community-based setting such as school. School helps promote social-emotional wellness without the stigma that comes with a formal mental health/clinical setting. Apex provides mentoring programs in a public school setting, which I thought was a perfect place to incorporate art therapy strategies!
RTB: What is the most memorable experience you’ve had with Apex for Youth?
GN: The most memorable experience I’ve had so far is leading and coordinating a 5-week summer group art therapy program at PS1 in Chinatown. It was the first time Apex and the school incorporated group art therapy strategies into a summer school program to promote social-emotional wellness.
At the beginning, many students struggled to express their authentic feelings or acted defensively because they’ve never had a chance to express how they truly feel about parental conflict, bullying at school, or a low sense of self-confidence. They also often feel like no one really listens to them or cares about how they are feeling.
After several sessions of building a sense of trust and learning to explore their emotions in a safe space, the students became more comfortable sharing with each other. For example, I conducted a ‘dream catchers’ activity where students were given the chance to reflect their anxiety / frustration to find out where those feelings arise from. Some of them shared that they felt nervous when their parents fought. Some shared how they felt lonely and depressed because nobody really cared about their school life or what they were going through.
I conducted pre and post self-reported surveys to measure students’ self-esteem levels. The result clearly showed that students became more comfortable with sharing their emotions and learned to ask for help from trusted adults when needed.
In both my clinical and personal experience, I’ve seen how art therapy has truly helped students generate a space to self-reflect and also learn to channel their emotions in safe ways.
RTB: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and how have you overcome it?
GN: My biggest challenge has been finding my own voice and sharing it with others.
When I was in school in Korea, I had to draw an apple that was placed on the table. I only needed to copy what I saw without talking. However, North America was different. Teachers asked for my ideas. My first homework assignment in my high school visual art class was to create a piece of art about my definition of apple (without drawing/creating an apple). It was the first ever conceptual art project in my life! It took me a whole week to understand the project.
Imagine a girl who has never shared her emotions or ideas, now being asked to voice her opinions and speak up in class discussion? I was petrified.
In college, I completely avoided speaking up because I was so afraid of being judged by others. So in my grad program, I challenged myself. I would push myself to ask one question to a professor in each week. After achieving that, I then pushed the goal to sharing my own opinion in one sentence in each class. Time went by and after A LOT of practice, I became more involved in class discussion.
By the end of my second year, I had to do a big thesis presentation in front of hundreds of people. To reduce my anxiety and feel more confident, I booked a room where the thesis presentation would be held. In the days leading up to it, I put myself on the stage to practice my presentation. I also went to my professors to ask for their advice. Practice and asking for help from others helped normalize my feelings. On thesis presentation day, my hands weren’t shaking and my voice wasn’t as faint. I was able to successfully complete my presentation!
RTB: What does rocking boat mean to you?
GN: “To be courageous, you have to be vulnerable…” I love this statement by Brene Brown, a social worker and research professor at University of Houston.
To be able to improve myself, I need to have the courage to be vulnerable. This means I have to share my vulnerability with others to ask for help and advice. I also have to accept fragile pieces of myself, reveal those weaknesses, and confront them in order to improve the weakness.
In the beginning, it was challenging for me to be vulnerable in front of others because culturally, I was taught to show only strong parts of myself and my strengths to others. However, I’ve learned that everyone has different weakness and strengths. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be defensive about my weakness. In fact, quite the opposite — if you are working on your weakness, it means you’re a courageous person who is not afraid to go through a number of tribulations to improve and find the best version of yourself. That’s what rocking the boat means to me.
Thanks to Grace Noh for her openness and courage in sharing her story. And stay tuned for Season 1 of the Rock the Boat Podcast…coming soon!