BookLife Prize: It’s Only the Beginning for Tanaya Kollipara
The winner of the 2021 BookLife Prize in nonfiction tackles mental health issues among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.Tanaya Kollipara, the young author of Stigma: Breaking the Asian American Silence on Mental Health, awakened early to the fact that there was a shortfall in mental health resources specifically addressing the needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.
Her 14-year-old best friend lay gasping on the floor in the throes of a panic attack, and neither Kollipara nor the adults who spoke in shamefaced whispers of her friend’s “hurt brain” knew what to do. As her sobs subsided, the girl on the floor said “Let’s talk,” and an advocate for mental health advocacy in the AAPI community was born. The answer, Kollipara understood, lay in breaking the silence and talking about the problem.
Getting people to talk was no small task in a community that often “holds a strong sense of judgment” and even “an attitude of fear and disgust toward mental illness and mental health,” a stance Kollipara attributes to “insufficient understanding and continued misinformation.” Undeterred, she sprang into action. “Since I was in high school, I’ve been fully involved in the world of mental health advocacy. I worked with my county’s NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness], even establishing a campus chapter at my high school.”
As the world descended into the maelstrom of pandemic and lockdowns, conditions worsened for people from all walks of life who were already facing mood disorders, anxiety, social isolation, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions. Kollipara realized she was uniquely positioned to help her community to better establish a sense of empathy and radical acceptance when it comes to mental health.
She began to invite those coping with issues ranging from postpartum depression to self-harm, eating disorders, substance use challenges, and suicidal ideation to share their stories and their journeys in her book.
“It was a truly humbling experience to hear these individuals share their stories,” Kollipara recalls. “Knowing that they—some friends, some complete strangers who later became friends—were trusting me with the most intimate details of their lives and trusting me to share their story in a way that does it justice is a truly special feeling and experience I will never be able to properly put into words. Each person I spoke to was so brave in sharing their story. They were willing to bare some of the most uncertain times of their lives, in hopes that those who read my book may find themselves in it and seek help far sooner.”A woman’s anxiety relating to her family reaches nightmare proportions after the birth of her first child. A college student tries so hard to live up to his family’s and society’s expectations that he can neither eat nor sleep. A young girl whose parents fear the social stigma of seeking mental health support valiantly looks for help in online communities; when her clinical depression reaches crisis and she attempts suicide, her parents sign her out of the hospital against medical advice because they “believe their daughter ‘isn’t crazy enough’ to need institutional intervention.”
These are only a few of the histories Kollipara recounts in Stigma. All the people she interviews throughout the book have persevered in seeking and obtaining treatment, and are now able to describe their journeys toward mental wellness in the hope of helping others.
Kollipara includes documentary research, expert opinions on mental health, and approaches to mental wellness with these personal stories of recovery and ongoing self-care. “I wanted the book to work threefold: help people understand and relate to AAPI experiences with mental health, correct the misinformation rampant in the community, and provide tools and guidance on how to deal with mental health struggles,” she says. “But sometimes it was a struggle to do all of that without sounding wordy or getting confusing; I still wanted this book to be very approachable!” The result—Stigma, the first self-help book ever to win the BookLife nonfiction prize—is proof of her success.
Ultimately, there are two things that Kollipara hopes readers will take away from her book: “One, mental health is an incredibly important part of our health and our lives and we should treat it as such. Two, the Asian American–Pacific Islander community needs understanding and compassion because mental illness is turning into a silent killer of the community. Do what you can to have conversations about mental health, provide resources and support, and don’t be afraid to seek help yourself.”
“This book was only the beginning of the work I plan to do,” Kollipara adds. “Mental health awareness and advocacy is extremely important and personal to me, and it’s something that I am actively continuing. I am currently involved with various mental health organizations and research that is focused on finding better therapeutic alternatives to treat mental illness. It’s all work I’m incredibly honored to be part of. I only hope to become further involved in mental health advocacy. I know I will never stop speaking out about mental health and mental illness—or writing about it.”
Karen Clark is a freelance writer, editor, and tutor who received her MFA from the City College of New York after owning an antiquarian bookshop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for over a decade.