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The Culture of Counseling

HGSE Lecturer Josephine Kim works to raise awareness of mental health issues that affect Korean-American student populations

October 20, 2010
Josephine Kim

"Many multicultural students experience intense culture shock when they come to college," says Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Josephine Kim, a national certified counselor whose research and clinical experience with multicultural populations span residential facilities, community agencies, and public and private schools. "The adjustment challenges for young people who have been raised in the U.S. by immigrant parents can be complex and multifaceted."

Since the spring 2007 slayings at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed by a troubled Korean-American student, Kim has been working to raise awareness of mental health issues that affect Korean-American students. As an emergency outreach counselor immediately following the tragic event — and in her subsequent role as founding executive director of Mustard Seed Generation, a nonprofit organization with a mission of encouraging Korean American youth to develop all aspects of a healthy identity — Kim has addressed an array of mental health issues in the Korean American community, including suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, body image issues, substance abuse, and identity confusion.

As horrible as it was, the tragedy at Virginia Tech was a catalyst for change. It has given us a chance to openly talk about mental health issues in a community where that topic has been off-limits. 

Many of these problems arise from intercultural and intergenerational conflicts among Korean Americans, says Kim, a Korean American who spent parts of her own childhood in both Korea and the United States. Her research examines inherent differences between western and Asian cultures and seeks to establish "scaffolding" for understanding the internal conflicts that can happen when disparate cultures merge. "Whether you are a parent or a child, when you are immersed in a culture, you don't always understand the external factors that influence how you feel," she explains. An example might be the parents who raise their children according to Korean traditions only to see them behave according to American mores as they mature. "In American schools, children are taught to think critically and to articulate their opinions. The parent may see that behavior as rebellious and disrespectful," Kim says, "but the fact is, their children have become Americanized."

Some Korean Americans grow up denying their Korean heritage in order to fit in, only to become drawn into activities and organizations that emphasize that heritage when they arrive at college. "A lot of students are confused about themselves at that point," Kim says. "They don't understand why they hated their ethnic identity before and now find themselves completely immersed in it." That confusion, coupled with parents' high expectations for success in school and careers, the frustration of having white peers constantly question their "American-ness," as well as body image and other concerns that are common to all teens are among the factors that put Korean American students at risk for a growing list of emotional and psychological issues.

Finding ways to address those problems is a tough challenge in a culture that traditionally has been reluctant to seek mental health care. "The stigma many Korean Americans attach to psychological and emotional problems prevents them from seeking help, namely counseling," Kim notes. "Too often, the solution has been to put on a brave face and try to ignore the problems or to mask them in unhealthy ways."

Since the majority of Korean Americans have a close affiliation with Christian churches, Kim's faith-based Mustard Seed Generation organization (the name taken from a biblical reference, "The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed...") works with churches to present counseling in a positive light. In conferences both in Korea and the United States — including one held this August in Gaithersburg, Md., aimed at Korean American youths, college students, youth leaders, and church leaders — Kim and her colleagues offer a changing slate of educational colloquiums, spiritual worship sessions, and group counseling sessions that zero in on the societal and familial realities that Korean Americans face and the role that counseling can play in fostering healthy social, emotional, and psychological development.

The group counseling sessions are mandatory. "Since counseling is embedded in the curriculum and everyone takes part in it, the stigma is removed," Kim explains. In counseling, participants have a chance to deeply explore their own perceptions and cultural identities. Church leaders, who often are on the front lines when family crises hit, come away with concrete skills and tools for serving as liaisons between families and the mental health community. Students develop a better grasp of the professional resources that are available to them when problems arise and hopefully become less reluctant to take advantage of those resources.

"Students have told me they had no idea their internal conflicts or difficulties with their parents were part of a cultural experience," Kim reports. "Discovering that the issues they've been grappling with are really part of a larger context of immigrant life can be transformational. It takes away the shame they associate with having personal problems and makes them something that can be talked about more openly."

The courses Kim teaches at the Ed School, Preventive and Developmental Group Counseling and Issues of Diversity in Cross-Cultural Counseling and Advocacy, both draw on and enrich her community outreach work. More than 30 Korean and Korean American students at HGSE have participated as counselors or presenters at Mustard Seed conferences and conducted independent studies under her supervision in the past three years. Some of the topics they have examined include the identity development and mental health of Asian American college students; intergenerational conflicts between immigrant parents and their Americanized children; depression and suicide among Korean Americans, with a focus on help-seeking behaviors and the consequences of not seeking help.

Looking ahead, Kim, who has conducted numerous seminars on east-west cultural differences for teachers and administrators and lectured widely on the topic in the U.S., Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia, and the Philippines, says the areas of multiculturalism and diversity acceptance are ripe for further research. While she will broaden the focus of her outreach to other ethnic cultures in the future, for now there is urgency for her work within the Korean American community.

"As horrible as it was, the tragedy at Virginia Tech was a catalyst for change," she says. "It has given us a chance to openly talk about mental health issues in a community where that topic has been off-limits. It opened the door to changing perceptions among Korean Americans in a way that will benefit students and parents alike. We need to take full advantage of that opportunity now."

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Diversity and Inclusion Social-Emotional Wellbeing