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Jeannie Mai Jenkins fights to normalize mental health support: ‘Everybody deserves to get that help’

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To discuss both, Emmy-award winning TV host and activist Jeannie Mai Jenkins joins Yahoo Finance’s Melody Hahm for an important and wide-ranging conversation. As a survivor of sexual abuse, Jenkins talks about her ongoing efforts to deal with her own trauma, the importance of destigmitizing mental health issues especially among minority groups, and the urgent need for Asian Americans to support the Black community.

Video Transcript


KRISTIN MYERS: Welcome back to "A Time for Change." I'm Kristin Myers here with Yahoo Finance's Melody Hahm. Now May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And it's also the month that we celebrate the heritage of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Now, Melody, I know you talked to someone recently who essentially is speaking out in both areas.

MELODY HAHM: Exactly, Kristin. As an Asian-American myself, I know firsthand how hard it is to admit any mental health struggles, and of course, talking about that stigma, right, and chipping away at it and to reach out for help. So I was really eager to talk to Jeannie Mai Jenkins, who is an outspoken advocate for mental health. Jeannie, of course, is the Emmy Award-winning host of "The Real." And she's of Chinese Vietnamese descent.

When we spoke, I was really struck by just how committed she is to helping other marginalized communities and how open and vulnerable she was about her own painful past.

JEANNIE MAI JENKINS: So if you follow my work, whether it's on "The Real" or my YouTube series or my podcast, you may have heard that I am a survivor of sexual abuse. If you know anybody who has gone through that type of trauma, a lot of similar traits happen. One of them is silencing yourself. So not only did I spend a lot of my childhood voiceless because I was trying to tell people what went on to me, but I either had a language barrier or I was afraid to speak up for myself, but on top of that, I also had-- I was also a part of this culture that, for whatever reason, doesn't want to create chaos or bring attention to ourselves.

So, in my neighborhood, we were the family that you never heard from. Our house got robbed two times. We never called the police. I remember getting into a small accident where I probably should have went to the hospital and got stitches. I didn't. My aunt put her own green oil on it. And we did our thing and our home remedies and we bound it up ourselves, only because there's something within some cultures within the Asian diaspora that tells you, you made it here. You-- America has allowed us to come. So just don't cause trouble. Just stay quiet.

So not only part of the culture to remain silent, but also on top of my trauma, it really created a lot of chaos for me when I was growing up, when I needed my voice the most, when I needed to stand up for myself, especially in a Hollywood industry that didn't represent me or didn't ask how I was feeling. And in relationships where I came out of an unhappy marriage, I went into a divorce. All these things, I learned that the only way I was going to heal is to actually own these things about me and talk about it and find my own healing by going through the journey, even if it means it hurts so much.

And so, now, coming into this grotesque couple of years where Asians have been viciously brutalized, I know how to speak out on it. I know how to use the exercises I do for myself to turn around and fight for my community. So I'm being more outspoken. I'm showing up on more things like this. I'm urging more of my friends that are a part of important platforms to speak out on this topic. And that is helping me heal as well.

MELODY HAHM: Your mom, Mama Mai, is a larger than life character herself. And you do have a YouTube channel where she makes frequent appearances. There was one conversation you two shared, talking about some really heavy topics specifically about when you were abused as a child by a family member. And she chose not to believe you. And it was so emotional. There was an outpouring of a lot of tears from her end, as well as yours. But I am curious when you think about this from a mental health perspective, what did that conversation mean to you?

JEANNIE MAI JENKINS: Yeah, thank you for mentioning that. That was definitely the moment I became more of myself than ever in my life. Not my job, not a big-- I've won Emmys, I've gotten married, I've gotten out of a marriage I wasn't happy in. I mean, I've done so many things in my life. But that right there was the moment that I felt like I heard myself, and I felt myself. And I felt myself hug my inner little girl.

So, the reason why I confronted my mom is because-- not because I needed a reaction from her. It wasn't because I needed to hear her apologize, or I expected anything of her. And I would say this to everybody out there. When you need to confront somebody about something that's really scorned you or that's really pained you, do it with an expectation to heal yourself from getting that off your chest. There should never be an expectation on how that person is going to react because you don't know where they are in their life. And you are not to take it personally.

So when I told my mom, I wanted her to hear what it did to me because I know my mom's very compassionate. And I know that she is also at a place where she's trying to better herself. She's trying-- she actually hates that side of her culture where they don't talk about problems. They don't open up issues at the family table. So she wants to be the antithesis of that. So that was my aim to say, OK, on that note, can I talk to you about something that really bothered me?

But when she responded with everything that she did, just her response, just her reaction being different than the first time, meant the world to me. It mean that this woman, who's 60 years old, with these old-ass generational curses of how she behaves or how she thinks she's the right one or how elders in the Asian community think that they're the top notch and you're not supposed to talk back to them, whatever, she actually brought herself to my same level to say, [INAUDIBLE], I hear you, and I was wrong. I didn't know what to do.

How come you never told me that that right there is all I needed to know?

All to say the main point of me telling her was to break the most uncomfortable, fearful thing that she might have remembered and forgot-- or remembered and didn't want to talk about, so that she never has that towards anybody else again. Anybody who comes to her revealing something so sacred and so painful, you be there for them, and you hold them, and you listen to them. And even if you don't know what to do, you are there for them. That's the one thing you know what to do, is to hold that person. And I needed her to do that for me. And now she understands how to do that for someone else. And that, before you die, is the most important thing you need to learn as a human being.

MELODY HAHM: One of the stats out there is that 50% of white adults with a mental health diagnosis actually receive treatment or counseling. Only 34% of Latinx folks did, 33% of Black adults, and 23% of Asian adults did. And of course, you can imagine that number is much lower for people who don't have a diagnosis, but perhaps do still have anxiety and depression. How do you feel like you're combating this right now? And as a society, given all the trauma that we collectively have faced, are we changing this narrative here? Are we actually asking for help, not only from our loved ones, but professional help?

JEANNIE MAI JENKINS: It is not in our culture. And as you can see, the minority breakdown that you just gave, it goes even less after white. It goes down to 30% and then 20. I'm surprised there's even that many, if I'm honest. And another reason besides being normalized in our cultures is the costs. It costs a lot of money. It's a luxury to get therapy. I only started getting therapy when I had a real job, when I was actually a television host, when I could afford something like that.

And so, I do believe that there should be therapy offered in ways that you can afford through your insurance policies. I think your companies should also be able to provide insurance-- be able to provide coverage for therapy. I think it should be more normalized. I think there should be group rates. There should be accessible ways to therapy because everybody deserves to get that help.

MELODY HAHM: Agreed. You also recently got married to Grammy nominated singer Jeezy-- super talented. He's an activist and philanthropist as well. Tell me about the Black and Asian solidarity. I know this is a loaded topic, but how do we process our own Asian experience without diminishing the trauma, right, and the pain of other marginalized groups, which is a conversation that I feel like it's happening right now.

JEANNIE MAI JENKINS: Absolutely. I think the first thing that all minority groups should acknowledge is that until Black Lives Matter, none of us will-- until Black Lives Matter, none of us will receive the respect that we deserve. That is first and foremost, because there is no other race out there that is being killed, that is dealing with police and justice on the daily, that had been oppressed for hundreds of years, and are still operating in a governmental system that serves them the least. That is the absolute bare bones fact.

So, the first thing that's most important to me, in my skin, what I can talk about, is, how important it is for not only myself, but people within my culture to stand up and speak out for our other brothers and sisters and other minority groups. It's important for us to show faith. It's important for us to be actively anti-racist. Racism affects all.

And it's so important for Asians. If we're already known as the quiet group, if we're already known and stuck under this model minority myth, these are more opportunities for us more than ever to speak up and to speak out and to stand in allyship and to stand in allyship and to speak up proudly for ourselves. Because they both affect each other. If you can't speak up for yourself, how am I going to believe that you speak up for other people? And if you don't speak up for other people, then I sure as hell ain't going to respect you speaking up for yourself.

MELODY HAHM: Woo, some truth bombs from Jeannie Mai Jenkins. Of course, we all know her and love her for her bubbly personality, but I think this conversation really showed a new side of her where she was so vulnerable and personal and opened up not only about her own mental health journey, having been a survivor of sexual assault, but also just the collective grief that the Asian community has had to undergo during this time. You can watch the full interview on our website, of course.