Spa killings add to nation’s anxiety, amplify concerns of Asian Americans

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

At Transformations Therapy of Atlanta, social worker Jennifer Lee has noticed a change, one that maybe bears witness to a year fraught with trauma.

The number of Asian Americans seeking therapy at the center is increasing, said Lee.

It’s “the combination of COVID-19, of staying quarantined for so long, of seeing this slow uptick of anti-Asian rhetoric that maybe other people haven’t recognized unless you’re in the community,” said Lee, who is Korean American.

Add to that a shooting spree at three Asian spas in metro Atlanta. Though the assault shocked, saddened and angered people around the world, it’s particularly worrisome for Asian Americans.

Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the March 16 attack. Since then, some Atlanta area therapists have reported an increase in calls from Asian Americans feeling anxiety or grief over the rhetoric and violence.

David Kim, of the Research Institute for Counseling & Education, said visits to his mental health clinic’s website have skyrocketed in the last week. He’s also seen a spike in existing clients asking if they can squeeze in additional sessions. People want to discuss their fears about being out in public and other concerns, he said.

“They talk about grief, anger and just want a space to talk about what it means to be Asian American,” said Kim, who specializes in multicultural counseling and has a clientele that’s about 80% Asian or Asian American. Hypervigilance caused by a threat “can kind of hijack the thinking process. It’s a fight, flight or freeze response,” he said.

In pre-pandemic days, people could meet with friends or co-workers to talk about a major event like the Atlanta shootings, said Norcross psychotherapist Elena Kim. But “now, when you’re isolated, you don’t have your regular social outlets,” she said.

“I have definitely gotten more calls in the past week than ever,” she said.

Her website currently has a notice saying she is fully booked. It directs people to other resources for help. “When you live in a state of tension and stress all the time, like this past year has been for many of us, you know at some point there comes a breaking point,” she said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Cirleen DeBlaere, an associate professor in the counseling psychology program at Georgia State, said incidents that are viewed as hate crimes can produce even more stress. Proximity to trauma — living close to where a mass shooting has occurred — is a factor in mental health, she added.

Though officials have not labeled the shootings a hate crime, the spa killings “will almost certainly have mental health consequences” for Asian Americans, according to DeBlaere.

Norcross psychotherapist . But “now, when you're isolated, you don't have your regular social outlets," she said.

“I have definitely gotten more calls in the past week than ever," she said.

- Elena Kim, Norcross psychotherapist

But those consequences might not show up “until weeks or months from now,” according to Emory assistant professor and psychologist Noriel Lim.

American Psychological Association president Jennifer Kelly issued a statement last week saying the Atlanta shootings “struck at the heart of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. ... Whether or not these murders are formally classified as hate crimes, the impact on people in this community is the same: Trauma.”

For some, anxiety has developed over time through news events like the Capitol riots, said Atlanta therapist Tom Liu, who specializes in cultural competency, immigration, trauma, sexual assault and other areas.

In a year when the president of the United States referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” a June 2020 Pew Research Center poll found that 31% of Asian Americans reported that they have been subject to racial slurs or jokes since the pandemic began. Studies found that two-thirds of Asian American participants had experienced COVID-19-related discrimination and such experiences were linked with increased reports of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Last week, President Joe Biden condemned the “skyrocketing spike” in violence against Asian Americans during remarks at Emory University.

Lee said some mental health professionals are offering pro bono services or reduced rates to decrease barriers to therapy. Similar to some other populations, “within Asian culture there is a very big stigma against mental health and mental health treatment,” she said. Asian Americans are the least likely racial group in the U.S. to seek mental health services, according to Mental Health America.

While many parents are willing to pay for services for their children, some don’t feel they can justify spending $70 or $100 on a session for themselves, she said. Meanwhile, Asian American community groups have organized informal “mental health check-ins,” “healing space” or peer support group virtual meetings since the Atlanta shootings.

Georgia has a toll-free call center for mental health crisis services,1-800-715-4225.The Atlanta-based Center for Pan-Asian Community Services offers counseling for depression, anxiety, panic attack and other services.

It’s a lot for Asian American mental health professionals themselves to deal with. David Kim is in a support group for Asian American therapists. They’ve had more meetings recently on how to manage the work while processing their own feelings.

Just the increased workload since the pandemic started has been trying. Emory’s outpatient clinic has been overflowing with referrals over the last year, according to Lim, who personally feels burned out.

There’s “an uptick in fear, anxiety, people feeling unsafe,” said Liu.

People handle the stress differently. Often, men are “feeling a lot of anger,” said Liu, while “a lot of the women I have seen have the sense of helplessness.”

Treatments can vary, too, Liu said. He organized a five-mile hike at Raven Cliff Falls near Helen on Sunday for a diverse group of people.

Nature can get people outside “the vortex, the rumination” of their own trauma and anxiety, he said.

“We just talked,” he said about the group outing. “At the end, it was just this feeling of hope.”