When Anna Akana started her career, it didn't include being at the forefront of destigmatizing mental illness. However, her openess in discussing her own personal experiences through films, videos and social media channels has helped to spread the word about mental health awareness, especially in the Asian American community.
You were just honored by Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services with the Mental Health Ambassador Award at the organization's annual Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards. Your award recognized you for creating and using your YouTube channel to promote awareness about mental illness and suicide. While it’s obvious you are not doing this for the accolades, how important do you think this is in spreading your message, especially in the Asian American community where mental illness has such a stigma?
Though it feels obvious because of my personal connection to the cause, mental health awareness and destigmatization is the most important message I have to spread. Asian American women are the second highest suicide demographic, as well as the highest demographic to not seek mental health help when they're suffering from depression. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in teens. These statistics infuriate me and I hope to help change them.
While there are a lot of comedy pieces on your channel, your work also covers a lot of tough topics, including your sister Kristina’s suicide. How difficult is it for you to be so open and how are you able to push past it?
It definitely was tough to be vulnerable in the beginning of my career. There are all the anxieties of how you're going to be perceived, whether or not your desire to share is genuine or a grab for attention, and just the scary part of talking about something so personal to a public and faceless audience. I've always been of the mindset that the more fear I have of something, the more I need to do it. When I first started talking about Kris, it was six years after her death. I was uncomfortable with any mention of suicide in conversations up until that point. I hadn't even been able to make light of it (I now talk about her in my stand up set). But as I opened up, I discovered that it was freeing. The more I talked about her, the less power her death held over me.
You wrote and starred in “Riley Rewind,” about a student who travels back in time to prevent a classmate’s suicide, which has received over 25 million views online. Did you ever think your work would touch so many people in such a positive way?
No, I honestly didn't. I'm not even sure if it's touched so many people in a positive way? It's hard to judge when your work is out there on the internet and you don't get face-to-face interactions with your audience on a regular basis. If people are positively impacted by my work, I'm honored. I'm lucky to get to do what I do.
What do you think are some things people can do to help change the stigmatizing attitude towards mental illness?
I think some small steps to take are discussing it more often with your friends. When I was diagnosed with depression and had to transition into medication, I started randomly bringing it up in conversation. To my surprise, there were so many people who were also on antidepressants or antipsychotics but had never discussed it with anyone out of the fear of how they'd be viewed. You can donate to mental health organizations, support/shout out those organizations on social media, or even just be more open about your own personal struggles.
In addition to acting and producing, you are also a writer. Your book, So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters To My Little Sister, will be released this June. In it, you talk about your own struggles and include a variety of advice. What is one thing you’d like your readers to take away from the book?
I'm hoping that it's useful. Whether someone gleans some career advice or relationship insights, I just want to be useful in the lives of those who read it.
Is there one piece of advice you wish you had while starting your career?
Take your time and enjoy it. I tend to overwhelm myself with work and projects and forget to slow down and take it all in. It's a process and a journey and a long one.
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