On Thursday, students filed into the Asian American Cultural Center’s multipurpose room to enjoy hot drinks, afternoon snacks and an engaging discussion about the intersection between social justice and mental health.

The event, titled “Making Connections and Fostering Movement: Race, Social Justice and Well-Being,” featured Miraj Desai, an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine. Desai is a member of the Department of Psychiatry’s Program for Recovery and Community Health, which seeks to “transform behavioral health programs, agencies and systems to be culturally responsive,” according to the department’s website. As part of this goal, the program aims to promote the recovery and social inclusion of people experiencing psychiatric disability, addiction and discrimination. The event was sponsored by the Yale Asian American Students Alliance.

Helena Bui ’20 and Alisa Cui ’20, the AASA freshman liaisons responsible for organizing the talk, both noted that Desai’s research focus seemed particularly relevant in light of the results of the presidential election. AASA co-moderator Peter Hwang ’18, who has been in conversation with Desai since they met at an AACC event on mental health last spring, said that inviting Desai to speak at the event represented part of a larger conversation about the unique challenges that Asians and Asian-Americans face in navigating mental health.

“We knew [Desai] did a lot of research on the intersectionality of mental health and racism, so we thought he would bring a refreshing, different point of view, especially for such a specific community that hasn’t been in the spotlight for mental health a lot,” Bui said.

Desai opened the event by recounting how his initial interest in clinical psychology stemmed from his experiences of prejudice and stereotyping following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Desai described how his sense of community “absolutely shifted” in the post-9/11 environment, in which he faced intimidation and harassment simply for the way he looked. His experiences encouraged him to take an interest in promoting awareness of and studying the relationship between culture, empowerment and mental health.

“Social issues, political issues and the world out there impact you as a person here,” Desai said. “[This] connection between the social world and the individual world has not always been recognized in psychology, in my field.”

During his talk, Desai described a growing movement within the medical field that moves away from characterizing mental health through a disease pathology model and focuses more on what it means to build a meaningful life in one’s community. He highlighted the importance of recognizing the impact of social, cultural and structural influences on well-being, emphasizing that individuals should never become complacent about social issues such as racial discrimination.

Bui said that she found the indigenous psychology part of Desai’s presentation to be very insightful. Indigenous psychology is an intellectual movement that seeks to understand cultures using indigenous philosophies, which may be different from the traditional approaches taken by Western cultures.

“One of my main takeaways is that you can use your culture as a strength rather than as something that alienates you,” Bui said. “Not everyone is the same race, ethnicity or color — there is strength in differences and you can use your culture to find comfort and solidarity.”

Cui added that the conversation following Desai’s talk helped her recognize that being a person of color will always be relevant to her identity, regardless of what career she pursues. She noted that it is always possible to contribute to the social justice movement because “your purpose and what you’re studying don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

AACC Assistant Director Raymond Firmalino, who was also in attendance, said that the event was an opportunity for him to support and listen to students, as well as learn more about a topic of personal interest.

“Especially right now in this critical moment, postelection, students are finding themselves stressed out and in a lot of ways suffering from the assaults on our many identities,” Firmalino said. “I’ve observed, in listening to students, many phases — grief, hurt, anger and sometimes a sense of resolve: ‘I’m going to do something about this and channel my energies in a productive way.’”

Upon the discussion’s conclusion, Desai said that he felt the students demonstrated a “keen awareness” of the relationship between social issues and mental health. He added that he was “very impressed” with the audience’s level of insight, energy and enthusiasm around sharing ideas and working on potential solutions to address common challenges.

The Yale Asian American Students Alliance serves as an umbrella organization for Asian-American groups on campus, including nine member ethnic organizations.