How the AWARE Certificate Addresses the Gap in Mental Health Services for Asian American Women

Hyeouk and students

The Network for Professional Education at BU School of Social Work (BUSSW) recently spoke with BUSSW Prof. Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm about the inspiration behind her research and the new Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment (AWARE) certificate, now available on The Network’s Learning Catalog. 

A nationally-recognized expert in mental health and suicide, Prof. Hahm began to focus her research on Asian American women’s mental health when she noticed a lack of attention to this area, starting her on a trajectory of work that unexpectedly led to numerous studies and clinical trials on the topic. Based on this robust research, she developed the AWARE intervention, a groundbreaking group psychotherapy treatment designed to treat and prevent behavioral health problems among Asian American women—the first of its kind for this community. Now, mental health practitioners and social workers can become certified in delivering AWARE through an online certificate from The Network for Professional Education. 

“The literature on Asian American women’s suicide or substance use was almost nonexistent. I remember when I was pursuing my PhD about 20 years ago, there were one or two articles specifically written about suicidal ideation and behaviors among Asian American women,” Prof. Hahm says. 

Data from the CDC shows that suicide ranks as the 10th leading cause of death nationwide, but suicide is the first leading cause among Asian American young adults aged 15-24. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide accounted for 23% of deaths among Asian American women aged 15 to 24, a prevalence notably higher than the 13% observed across all U.S. women in the same age group. Despite these numbers, there is little research on the cause of increased suicide rates among Asian American women, nor are mental health practitioners addressing the issue. 

With funding from a five-year NIMH grant, Prof. Hahm conducted a qualitative and quantitative study alongside student researchers at BUSSW on the suicidal behaviors, mental health symptoms, and sexual behaviors of young Asian American women.

“The immediate need for targeted mental health solutions for Asian American women was clear. The striking lack of specialized interventions compelled us to create AWARE. Today, ‘AWARE’ stands as the sole evidence-based intervention that specifically addresses the individual, familial, racial, and cultural concerns of Asian American women,” Prof. Hahm says. 

Prof. Hahm and the research team interviewed over 700 women of Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese descent between the ages of 18 and 35. There was one consistent theme the women talked about during the recruitment process – they had never participated in a study specifically for Asian American women. 

“They were so excited about participating,” Prof. Hahm remembers. “They brought their friends, roommates, and sisters. I think more than 30% of our 700 women were actually recruited by our research participants. The participants went from feeling alone in their mental health challenges to realizing that this is a common phenomenon based on cultural identity. There was such a sense of excitement, of empowerment and validation. I think it really uplifted the community.”

Following the success and enthusiasm for the research, Prof. Hahm was awarded an additional grant to develop an intervention based on the research findings – the AWARE intervention.The intervention then went into clinical trials at Boston University, Wellesley College, and Harvard University. Asian American women between the ages of 18 and 35 participated while the team continued to publish their research findings. 

As the AWARE research drew more and more attention, Prof. Hahm happened upon a unique opportunity with The Network for Professional Education at BUSSW.

“Universities would hear about AWARE and ask if I could train their clinicians.” Prof. Hahm says. “I had received 26 calls from all different universities, but I could only do so much. It was almost impossible. We could only train clinicians during the summer when I wasn’t teaching.”

Prof. Hahm worked with BUSSW colleague Prof. Bronwyn Keefe, director of The Network for Professional Education to develop the AWARE program into a self-paced, interactive online training to enable other clinicians to effectively treat this population. Now, social workers and clinicians can get certified in the AWARE Training Intervention, and learn how to understand and address the complex challenges facing Asian American women. 

With the success of the program, Prof. Hahm hopes to receive another grant to perform clinical trials on an even larger scale with 300 Asian American women at Boston University and Rutgers University. Prof. Hahm hopes to generate more evidence of the need for AWARE and the power it has to improve the lives of young Asian American women.

A  2021 report by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) found that while the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) population in the United States has more than doubled in size, foundation funding for this population only accounts for .2 percent of all U.S. grant awards. In fact, funding for AAPI communities has actually declined since its peak at a meager .6 percent in 2009. 

Despite these ongoing challenges, Prof. Hahm hopes that the AWARE certificate can stir change from the ground up. Prof. Hahm shows no signs of being deterred by the statistics. “If somebody takes the AWARE Certificate, and if they can help Asian American children, or women, and if AWARE helps that person become a better family member or community member and encourages them to pursue their own potential, that gives me hope and energy to keep going.”

Now that clinicians can become certified in the AWARE intervention online, more young Asian American women can receive better evidence-based treatment for their unique challenges.

“One of the most common statements that we heard from women during our trials was the lack of validation they received. Women didn’t know whether they were alone in their experiences, or if their struggles were due to cultural issues. Many felt like no one really understood them,” Prof. Hahm explains. “When they learn through the AWARE intervention that their experiences exist at a societal and cultural level, and are the result of being the children of immigrants, among other factors, most of the participants have an ‘A-ha!’ moment.” 

Prof. Hahm recalls feeling heartened by the responses to the AWARE intervention, seeing women go through a transformative experience and gain the power to name their feelings and experiences. Despite daunting challenges that still face Asian American women, Prof. Hahm hopes to be a source of optimism for her students and colleagues who are working with her to expand AWARE. 

“I’m so grateful to Boston University, BUSSW, and all of our research funders who recognized that this is important work and who supported me in developing a course to train practitioners in the AWARE intervention. I am so lucky to have worked with and met some incredible people in the process, especially the Asian Americans who have sacrificed their time and who have been amazing partners to me and my lab team.”

Learn more about the AWARE certificate program.

Learn more about Prof. Hahm’s research.