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On Oct. 8, 2021, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) USA announced that former Harvard standout and professional basketball player Jeremy Lin ’10 would be the newest addition to its team as a UNICEF Ambassador. In this role, Lin will be helping children in a variety of different ways; however, he is specifically focused on advocating for the mental health of America’s young population.
“I do think the conversation has been started,” says Lin of the youth mental health movement, “and I just want to keep being a part of that.”
Lin’s biggest goal, he says, is to continue that conversation however he can.
Already taking steps toward achieving that goal, Lin represented UNICEF USA at the State of the World’s Children Report launch event with Congress and was also a keynote speaker at The Aspen Institute Project Play Summit. With his participation in these two events, Lin grew as a leader and mental health advocate in new ways.
“What I learned from those instances is that there are a lot of people that care about it,” said Lin, referring to children’s mental health advocacy. “For me, when I find a conviction or passion around something, sometimes it can feel like I'm the only person, or I'm one of the few people that is trying to do this. … The fact that I even got a chance to do that and be a part of that shows that there are a lot of people that are trying to talk about [mental health].”
The topic of mental health is indeed garnering more attention in the media today. Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka, the highest paid female athlete, withdrew herself from Wimbledon, the oldest and arguably most competitive tennis tournament in the world, referencing her prioritization of mental health as the reason she removed herself from the competition. Similarly, during the 2020 Summer Olympics, superstar gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the all-around competition in order to focus on her own mental well-being. In light of the media attention and subsequent national discourses spurred by these decisions, Lin recognizes that, although the conversation about the importance of mental health has begun, it is still met with resistance by some.
“I think the conversation is happening, for sure, but I think it is still very divisive,” Lin added.
However, even in the face of stigma and adversity surrounding mental health, Lin is confident that there is progress being made.
“As long as that conversation is being had, I do think in general, we will trend towards the right direction,” Lin said. “It’s worse when you're not having a conversation at all.”
A member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community himself, Lin recognizes the unique mental health challenges present within the AAPI community — challenges that have only been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Lin thinks there are three main obstacles that members of the AAPI community face in regards to mental health: cultural stigmas, impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on children’s well-being, and the prevalence of anti-AAPI sentiments throughout America.
While every AAPI household is different, Lin believes that, as a cultural group, there is room to grow and work to be done in mental health literacy.
“I don't want to just over-generalize and say every house is like this, but in many Asian cultures, [mental illness] isn't talked about all that often,” Lin said. “When you talk about getting a therapist or something like that, immediately somebody thinks something is gravely, gravely wrong versus just saying: ‘Hey, I need mental health resources. I need help.’”
Lin’s second point is that the Covid-19 pandemic presents challenges for children specifically as well. He cites the unique circumstances that children face growing up in a pandemic.
“Because of the pandemic, because of isolation, because of how much things have changed, and how life has changed, it's really hard for kids who grew up knowing life to be a certain way, and then all of a sudden it's never going to be the same or hasn't been the same in a long time,” Lin said.
Lin also points out that the AAPI community has faced increased racism in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Anti-AAPI hate crimes have been reported to be up 149 percent, and that is even before the deadly shootings that occured in March.
“Now we're seeing something [racism against the AAPI community] even worse in terms of mental health, compounded right on top of the pandemic,” Lin said. “The Asian American community right now is really struggling.”
Unfortunately, Lin is no exception to the anti-AAPI sentiment and has had to brace himself in the face of racism's impact in his own life. With this has come subsequent mental health challenges, many of which he feels other members of the AAPI community would be able to relate with.
“I think the biggest thing is I didn't even know,” said Lin looking back on the racism he’s faced. “[Traumatic experiences] almost subtly at times shift how you view everything, and you're not even aware of it. ... That's the scary part about it.”
Being an elite athlete playing at the highest level possible comes with a certain level of pressure that few people will ever experience in their lives. Lin has faced these pressures and anxiety throughout his career, and he believes that if he had sought help with them earlier, the resources would have been beneficial to his own mental well-being.
“As I've begun to unwind and unpack these things, I've almost felt like the richness of life has kind of been robbed from me because of certain things that maybe I hadn't handled in the past,” Lin said.
Having an immense passion for helping the next generation was a contributing factor in Lin wanting to join UNICEF USA as an ambassador. Lin accredits this to the inspiration he draws from his parents, Gie-Ming and Shirley Lin. First-generation immigrants, they moved to the United States without English literacy in order to give their children the best chance possible at accomplishing their dreams.
“They were basically saying ‘We're gonna forgo all of our dreams to try to become an immigrant so that you guys [Lin and his siblings] can have a chance to have a better future,” Lin said. “So for me, me being able to be an NBA basketball player for nine years and to be able to be a professional basketball player for 12 years and to be able to do what I've done, it's because of them.”
The sacrifice made by Lin’s parents has left him determined to help the next generation.
“I'd be crazy not to try to be heavily thinking about the next generation as well and saying ‘What can I do to make their lives a little bit easier, a little bit better and to pass along the legacy of what the previous generation has done for us?’” Lin said.
The UNICEF USA Ambassador believes that there is still plenty of work to do in order to help youth with mental well-being.
“I really hope we start having many more resources available,” the Palo Alto native remarked. “Even when I talked to some of the students who are members of our foundation grantees, they say, ‘There aren't that many mental health resources available at our middle school or at our high school.’ And even if they do, the students don't believe that they'll work or they’ll do anything, or they don't even know that it’s there.”
However, Lin has a plan to help rectify some of these gaps in the mental health system.
“What I hope to be doing with UNICEF, is actually providing really effective tools, resources and conversations so that children, when they are dealing with things that can be traumatic or things that they need to process, they can immediately know ‘Where do I go to to be able to handle this and to be able to process this?’” Lin said.
Lin thinks that we have a long way to go, but if he can help make even a small amount of progress as a UNICEF USA Ambassador, he will consider that a success.
“I don't necessarily think that in my time as an ambassador, we're gonna see everything that we want done,” Lin said.“I think it's going to take so much time, so many different people, so many conversations.”
However, Lin sees the power in numbers and has hope for the future.
“Even when I go through certain things, or when I see even family members go through certain mental health issues, it's always comforting to see that there are a lot of other people that can join alongside each other to really inspire each other and help each other,” Lin added.
The NBA champion has done a lot for the AAPI community, the game of basketball, those who struggle with mental health, and many others already, but this next matchup he chose to take on — helping children in need — may be the most challenging one to date.
— Staff writer Derek Schaedig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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