Karen Mok, Co-founder of Wellness Community The Cosmos on Asian Mental Health & How the Trauma of Anti-Asian Hate & Violence Affects Her Community

Name: Karen Mok
Role: Co-Founder and Writer at The Cosmos 
Based in: Brooklyn, New York
Age: 30

I’m the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of The Cosmos, a space for Asian women to care for themselves, their community, and their world. I’m the writer and editor of The Cosmos Care Package, our weekly newsletter, and I coach Asian American women on storytelling.
I’m Asian American, the daughter of immigrants, a younger sister, a mom to a rescue dog named Cat. I believe everyone has a story worth telling, and everyone’s story deserves to be told. I’m currently trying to share more of my story on Instagram 🙂

Karen is one of two female founders of The Cosmos. A digital and off-line home to Asian American women in the business of actively taking care of their wellbeings and of those around them. Prior to co-founding The Cosmos in 2018 with partner Cassandra Lam, Karen led Global Identity and Verification Partnerships at Stripe, one of the world’s leading processing & commerce companies, and experienced taking leave for her depression. What follows is a deep dive into the intersectionality of gender, race, and mental health, the mental health stressors that Asian Americans and Asian American females confront and struggle with on a daily basis today and in light of the continued racial attacks against AAPIs, mental health stigma in families, and of course, her personal mental wellness. Some of the questions have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some mental health habits or tips you can share with us that you actively lean on during the week to take care of yourself?

Therapy has been a cornerstone of my mental health care. For me, depression and anxiety manifests as overwhelming thoughts and feelings, and therapy helps me create space from those feelings and recenter my sense of safety and agency.

Daily exercise! I try to run once a week and do at least a 30 minute workout six days a week, even if it’s a walk with my puppy. Movement helps me feel present and grounded.

Playing with my dog! Caring for my rescue dog, who was also very anxious when I first rescued her, helps me get out of my anxious or depressive thoughts. 

Communicating openly with my partner, friends, and team when I do feel anxious and sad. I’m still working on this!

Part of the reason for founding Cosmos has been from your lived experience of depression. Can you tell us a little more about your mental health story?

Later on in my journey, I realized I had also internalized stigma against medication for mental health conditions. I was still holding onto the idea that I could do it on my own. I needed to hear and explore different perspectives to develop my own view on my depression and anxiety, to stop judging myself, and to accept that depression and anxiety are part of my story. So I did research on SSRIs and read a number of books (scientific and personal essays) by folks with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia. Through The Cosmos, I met other Asian women with mental health conditions, and it changed everything — community helped me see I wasn’t alone.

As I was going through all this (2018-2020), I experienced numerous challenges and unknowns in getting care. I often felt like I was stumbling through a dark forest alone. How do I find an Asian therapist? How do I understand what my insurance covers, when I am too anxious to be on hold for two hours? What is in-patient vs out-patient care? Is my medication covered at the pharmacy near my home? Can I take short-term disability from my workplace? 

Because of my mental journey, I’m now passionate about advocating for universal mental health education in schools, universal health care coverage for mental health, and accessibility of culturally relevant mental health care.

When did you decide to seek help and how was the process of seeking community and clinical help? Were you able to find a professional that could understand your experience as an Asian American & a female and how that influences your emotional and mental health?

I sought help because I couldn’t get myself out of my depression and anxiety, and that was hurting my ability to work and live– to be myself. 

I specifically sought out Asian American women therapists. Even though the search was more difficult, I knew that a big part of my trauma was racial trauma, and I needed someone who would not question that part of my experience. I understood that lack of culturally relevant care was a major reason why Asian Americans do not seek mental health care; I saw that in my own family. 

Choosing to “break the cycle” and seek care has not been easy. I was terrified of informing my family and there are days where I do still feel they do not accept my decision. But through therapy, I’ve unlearned many harmful patterns, including the need for approval from my family, and that’s given me freedom to care for myself, without feeling guilty or that I am disappointing my family.

What are some common wellbeing concerns and wellness struggles distinctive to the Asian American & female identity?

I can’t speak for all Asian American or female folks, but through The Cosmos, we’ve identified 3 major trends:

  1. Belonging: Asian American women are searching for “home” in between cultures, identities, generations.
  2. Confidence: Asian American women often do not feel they are enough — not American enough, not Asian enough. 
  3. Activism: Asian women are trying to understand what speaking out about their values and beliefs looks and feels like. They are often the first in their families to have the privilege and agency to use their voices to influence society.

Has the current landscape with anti-Asian violence and responses from communities and industries been affecting your mental health?

Of course it has been debilitating. The trauma is everywhere – in the news, social media, the mind. The feeling of being unsafe is amplified, and that is already something I struggle with due to my anxiety. I feel a lot of pressure to say something because I have a platform, but at the same time, I am trying to care for myself and that usually means being quiet and reflective. I’ve struggled with balancing both.

How has it affected the Asian women in your community and influenced how The Cosmos operates?

I feel fortunate I can care for the community in this time through The Cosmos. We’ve held Collective Healing spaces for the AAPI community for 2000+ folks in the last few months. We’re launching a new program focused on Authentic Activism, so Asian women have the space to process and reflect on what sustainable activism for the community looks like. We’re thinking about how we care for ourselves and our mental health as much as we think about how to support the community in taking action.

Are there any additional resources, online or off-line, that Asians or Asian women reading this can go to if they’re looking to take care of their mental health and seeking culturally sensitive mental healthcare?

I am mindful of not recommending, as what works for me may not work for someone else! I encourage anyone reading this to take the time to reflect on what safety and care look like for you. For some people that is therapy, for others it is somatic practices like breathwork and reiki. My hope is more options are known and available so folks from all identities can find something that speaks to their truth.

You offer a book club, a weekly digital care package, and a regular cadence of community events for Asian women to be a part of. What has been by far the most effective way to improve the wellbeing and self-care of Asian women of The Cosmos community based on feedback or engagement?

All Cosmos experiences are based on our definition of community care. For The Cosmos, this means, practicing compassion, self-awareness, agency, and sustainability in every space we create for Asian women. It means telling honest, stereotype-defeating stories about being Asian women — the joys and the traumas. 
The most healing feeling is to be seen and heard in where you are in your journey, but that is such hard work, when many of us have never felt that from society or our families. So we hold ourselves to seeing and hearing the Asian women in our community,  in every experience, no matter if it’s a 15 min Zoom call or a 6 week Camp Cosmos experience.

Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be?

You are enough, as you are. You are loved and cared for, and you are safe.

Complement this read with mental health for Black Americans with the founder of BARE Mental Health & Wellness, professor and clinical psychologist, Jessica Lopresti, a conversation on how to provide culturally sensitive support and approach finding the right therapy and professional support with Dr. Tony Rufus Spann, Chief Clinical Officer of Hurdle, and the mental health consequences of race and its social determinants, as disclosed by mental health startup founder and public health leader Kevin Dedner.

Interview and edited by Susan Yoomin Im

For more on The Cosmos or to join their community, click here.

Follow Karen Mok on Linkedin or Instagram

For additional wellness resources, check out this resource page or get help through mental health advocacy and education non-profit Made of Millions’s resources directory here.

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