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AAPI Mental Health Q & A Speaker Spotlight: Al Tsai, MD

Join us this June as Asian Mental Health Project and ERC Pathlight staff members discuss topics about mental health in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community through a live Q & A and short clip digest on our Table Talk YouTube Series: Mental Health and Stigma in the Asian American Pacific Islander Community.

 

by Al Tsai, MD

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in the diverse suburb of Fremont, California, where I was lucky enough to attend  grade schools where Asians were the ethnic majority. Fremont is considered a large enclave for Afghans, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Vietnamese. I identified as Taiwanese American and my parents would often attend political and cultural events held by the robust Taiwanese American community in the Eastbay.

Most of my summers in middle and high school involved three-to-four days of going to Taiwanese American Youth Leadership Camps. I feel like I gained much self-esteem and a sense of identity in being a part of a larger ethnic group tied with a history of political opposition to mainland China. Certainly the friendships and bonding experience with other second generation Taiwanese American kids who also experienced what it was like to have first generation Taiwanese immigrant parents were able to provide me with many moments of humor and connection.

There were so many shared idiosyncrasies I learned about during those camps, like getting little red envelopes filled with money for the lunar new year, or how our Taiwanese parents would try to get you into places half price saying you were 12 when you were really 15, or having to address each and every one of your parents’ friends “uncle” or “auntie” even though they were not related to you, or having a forty-pound bag of rice in your pantry, and so many other experiences that you would typically find on lists titled “You know you’re Asian if…”

As a youth I unsurprisingly found myself less interested in politics and more interested in sports. I was a huge fan of Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, and Mark Mcgwire of the Oakland Athletics and was so excited when the team went to three straight world series, winning the Battle of the Bay Series in 1989. I was also fanatical of the “Run TMC” Golden State Warriors and was still a die-hard fan through two decades of terrible lottery basketball teams. Two big hobbies of mine were collecting baseball cards and nerdily tracking statistics from the losing Golden State Warriors teams.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear about the first Taiwanese American playing for the National Basketball Association in 2010, when my favorite basketball team took a chance on an undrafted rookie out of Harvard, named Jeremy Lin. Lin was from the San Francisco Bay Area too, and like me, was Taiwanese American. Following his career through Oakland, and Linsanity and through Houston, Los Angeles, and Charlotte, he made a name for himself based on his savvy playmaking, clutch shooting and athleticism. This was rewarded with roughly $70 million in career NBA earnings.

He made headlines during the pandemic while he was playing for the NBA G League under the Golden State Warriors. Another player on the court had called him “coronavirus.” He came out several days later stating he had been the target of racism. Social media, his coach, and the league supported Lin in his stance that comments like these would not and should not be acceptable and added to the growing narrative that discrimination against Asian Americans needed to be brought to the forefront of our social consciousness.  Lin declined to name the person who made these comments, noting that, "From my standpoint, it does no good to bring somebody down, when what I'm trying to do is uplift the people that need to be and to bring awareness to the things that need to be brought."

I’ve heard that Asians and Asian Americans make up 50% of silicon valley, and 20% of the healthcare force in America, but only 0.4% of players in the NBA. These statistics perpetuate the stereotypes of Asians being good with software and medicine, and not so good at basketball or sports in general. It was so refreshing to see a character like Jeremy Lin get out there and represent Taiwanese Americans so well and to challenge the stereotype that Asians are nonconfrontational and lacking athleticism and skill in sports. To see Asian characters not fit the mold of stereotypes is the first step towards erasing prejudice and setting the stage for human connection.

I have carried the view throughout my career that the two most important skills for a mental health provider are the ability to empathize, and the ability to listen.  I tend to believe also that these are two skills absolutely needed to attenuate prejudice and stereotypes. This is how racism is brought down, when we can rise above our self-identified ethnic labels and recognize and appreciate the more complex values that can bind us together.

 

Learn more about the upcoming AAPI Table Talk YouTube Series.

Find more information about Asian Mental Health Project.

 

Al Tsai, MD

Biography:

Al Tsai, MD, is a ABPN certified psychiatrist, at the Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Program in Washington State. Dr. Tsai has previously worked at Overlake Medical Clinics and Overlake Hospital Medical Center from 2012-2020 where he served as the attending psychiatrist over the Partial Hospitalization Program and also managed patients in the outpatient psychiatry clinic. He also practiced Military Psychiatry with the United States Army Medical Corps with stations at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington D.C., Ft. Bragg Army Medical Center in North Carolina, and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2009-2010.

He attended the University of California at Berkeley where he received a Bachelor’s of Science with a double major in Psychology and Molecular Cell Biology with an emphasis in Neurobiology and a minor Philosophy. He earned his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Tsai completed his  internship and residency in 2009 at the Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington DC and Bethesda, Maryland.

Dr. Tsai has a wide variety of practice experience and is passionate about the treatment of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, non-suicidal self-injury, personality disorders, and PTSD. He is also excited to participate in the near future in novel treatments for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use, with psychedelic therapies that target the glutamate receptor systems.