One night in April 2006, 16-year-old Binna Kim awoke in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor, her head pounding. Blaming it on her period, she tried to stand up and turn on the lights but couldn’t. So she called out to her parents. No answer. She crawled to their bedroom and shook her dad’s legs, which were hanging from the bed. Still silence. She dragged herself to the bathroom and passed out. Her best friend’s parents found her the next morning, along with her father, mother and 8-year-old brother — everyone but Binna was dead.
Two days earlier, Kim’s father, Sang In, had written a suicide note to his church pastor. He had explained that he was drowning in debt and asked the pastor to take care of his family. But then, armed with a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol, he decided to take his family with him.
Despite the need for a conversation about mental health in the Korean-American community, many consider it a taboo topic.
After months of physical therapy, Kim can walk again. She still recalls her fathers’ tense phone conversations after he had borrowed heavily to finance an American restaurant franchise in Seoul. Once, she yelled at him, saying, “I get mad at you because that’s all I’ve ever seen from you!” Angry at first, he then broke down in tears. “How much was he suffering that he felt he had to do this, to think this was the only way out?” Kim wonders.
Over a span of five weeks that spring, there would be five confirmed murder-suicides in Southern California, all committed by Korean immigrant fathers. Despite the need for a conversation about mental health in the Korean-American community, many consider it a taboo topic. So one L.A.-based organization is tackling it through the community’s social center: the church. In 2011, the Korean Health, Education & Information Center (KHEIR) began offering a free mental health workshop that teaches clergy, their spouses, church elders and other church leaders how to recognize signs of mental illness in parishioners and connect those who need help to the appropriate resources.
Similar training programs have sprung up in New York City and Washington, D.C. “I think there’s a need, and the churches are recognizing it in the younger generation,” Kim says. “I think [these programs] are going to expand.”
For many Korean-Americans, the church is their sole social outlet. Parishioners pick up new immigrants’ groceries and teach them how to drive. They take turns hosting dinners, and some start businesses together. Meanwhile, church leaders wield considerable influence.
So when Korean-Americans struggle with substance abuse, depression or other mental-health issues that plague their community, they often turn to pastors or church elders (wealthy, powerful parishioners who employ pastors) rather than seeking help from mental health services. Many shy away from therapy due to the intense stigma surrounding mental illness. And Korean-Americans often feel that medical providers don’t address the spiritual and cultural issues that matter most to them.
Depression is common among Korean-Americans, although it’s hard to nail down an exact figure, partly because the CDC, responsible for collecting such information, does so only for Asian-Americans as a whole. But it’s well documented that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world: Every day, more than 30 South Koreans kill themselves.
Older, more dogmatic pastors tend to believe that the mentally ill ‘have the devil in their mind.’
KHEIR therapist Sang Moon traces the problem to a highly competitive culture, which has only grown even more competitive since South Korea rose to first-world status a decade ago. “There’s a lot of competition to get a better job, go to a better school,” Moon says.
Kim says that depression can also stem from the “social downgrading” Koreans often experience when they immigrate to the U.S. Although many hold college degrees from back home, they qualify for only menial jobs in the U.S. The challenges of learning English and the cultural barriers between parents and their American-raised children also take an emotional toll. And in a culture that seems to consider binge-drinking ability a sign of manliness, these stresses can easily spiral into alcoholism.
KHEIR therapist Mike Sohn notes that older, more dogmatic pastors tend to believe that the mentally ill “have the devil in their mind.” So when parishioners approach them with emotional or behavioral issues, they often recommend praying or reading the Bible more, for example.
These pastors might also be more reluctant to recommend psychiatry due to its long history of associating religious experience with mental illness. Some pastors also view mental health services as competition for their own spiritual guidance.
“There’s a tendency to wait and hope things get better,” Kim says. “If the [parishioner] is suicidal, sometimes they don’t tell them to go to the ER until it’s too late.”
Others ‘don’t care’ because they don’t know anyone with a mental illness, or they view psychology as anti-Christian.
But attitudes are changing. Each month, a KHEIR Center licensed therapist, staff member and Han Yang — a pastor at Sovereign Grace Bible Church in Redondo Beach, California — lead a two-hour long workshop that educates church leaders about common mental health problems in their community, how to identify them, and sources for referral, such as suicide hotlines and therapy services offered in Korean. “We also just discuss that it’s important to encourage parishioners to get help,” says KHEIR Center program manager Kirby Van Amburgh.
Sponsored by the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, the workshop emphasizes that parishioners with spiritual needs might also need mental-health services. “If I have cancer, I have to go to the hospital, but I also pray,” Yang says. “Depression is a brain problem, so I also have to see a doctor and pray. And God fixes all things through doctors, through prayer, through pastors. So I use all those things because all things are from God.”
A licensed therapist, Yang invites local church leaders to attend the workshop. He says that about half think positively of the workshop, while the others “don’t care,” either because they don’t know anyone with a mental illness or they still view psychology as anti-Christian.
Kim worries that a single, two-hour-long workshop covering several mental-health issues might not provide the concrete examples needed to actually apply the workshop lessons.
The Washington Christian Counseling Institute in Washington, D.C., takes a more in-depth approach. Five years ago, it launched a three-part training program called Counseling Academy 123. Each part, or “academy,” consists of five workshops taught by licensed counselors and pastors, each covering basic counseling skills, warning signs and referral sources centered around a specific issue, such as communication or cultural identity.
Counseling Academy 123 trains not only pastors and church elders — who tend to be busier — but also Bible study teachers and other lay volunteers, in whom parishioners tend to confide before church leaders.
Washington Christian Counseling Institute administrative coordinator Min Park says it’s important to have mental health services that incorporate Korean-Americans’ Christian beliefs. “We would love to have somebody who understands our value system and perspectives to help us keep in line with them. Spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual — we are one package.”
Just as psychologists have found that spiritual practices can boost mental health, church leaders are acknowledging the benefits of psychology. “Spirituality and mental health support aren’t enemies,” Van Amburgh says. “They can work collaboratively to help people.”
Amen to that.
Why you should care
Because for a community plagued with depression and substance abuse, psychology and religion may need to stop butting heads and start working together.