‘We are all unwell’: a scholar’s radical approach to health

Mimi Khúc began thinking about “unwellness”, or the idea that we all struggle to be “well”, more than a decade ago. At the time, she was a graduate student and a new mother struggling with postpartum depression. She didn’t have the knowledge or language to talk about what she was feeling – she just felt like a bad mother to her daughter Elia.

Now Khúc is a scholar of Asian American, gender and disability studies, who surveys and questions the forces that contribute to our unwellness. Her new book dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss melds many forms – scholarship, essayistic passages about her own pain and creative exercises – to spur readers’ own reflections on unwellness.

“When you begin with the recognition that we are all unwell, that our unwellness is shaped by the structures around us, it changes everything,” says Khúc.

The book continues Khúc’s creative work on the themes of mental health, referencing a collaborative project called Open in Emergency, which included a “hacked” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for Asian Americans, and a tarot deck reimagined to reflect Asian American experiences.

When we first tried to schedule a call, I had to postpone because I had a cold. “Unwellness calls,” Khúc wrote to me, in response. And it does, for many of us – more than we know or feel allowed to admit. We eventually did get together to discuss the structural nature of unwellness, how to acknowledge and rectify it and community care.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why the term ‘unwellness’?

It doesn’t come with the same baggage as “illness”. I’m fine with the word “illness” – as someone with PTSD and depression, I identify as someone who is ill. But I wanted to move away from individual pathology. I also wanted a term that was big, broad, capacious, so that it can capture everything we want it to. The nature of what hurts for all of us is gigantic, and we’re still finding language for it. Existing vocabulary in health or mental health doesn’t always help us.

How does dear elia aim to grapple with unwellness?

Dear elia is a hybrid project that I call “creative-critical”, because it’s both scholarly and creative. I wanted to draw upon the methods and tools I’ve learned and that I teach in the humanities to provide people with an expanded vocabulary in mental health, so we can better engage with our own unwellness.

I also focus on universities as a venue of unwellness. Universities adopt the language of wellness, but defined by hyperproductivity and achievement – take care of yourself, but only so that you can be the best worker possible. This is a wellness that is compulsory, that puts pressure on you to pretend you are OK and frames not being OK as some kind of personal failure.

The goal is care, not wellness

What most people don’t realize is that this construction of wellness actually produces unwellness. We are being forced to be “well”, to pretend we’re OK, to never have needs, to never be sick, because all those things would mean something is wrong with us and we don’t actually belong. This constant pressure can be deadly.

When you talk about unwellness, you often refer to specific contexts, like being Asian American or working in an academic setting. Why is specificity important when talking about unwellness?

It’s not that we need to be specific in terms of individuals. But we’re social beings in social structures, and those different forces shape our lives.

In mental health or health, when we say “universal”, we don’t actually mean it – there’s always an imagined, typical person. For example, the “universal” person is usually able-bodied, which shows the ableist expectation and assumptions we have for people and their abilities. In terms of mental health, we typically assume and expect “normal” levels of wellness. Once we have specificity we can challenge that compulsory wellness. The next step is, how do we create care that matches up to how we are unwell? Because the goal is care, not wellness. That starts when we first give ourselves permission to admit that we are not well, and permission to be unwell.

You have a line in your book: “The Professor is ill. The Asian American Professor is ill. The Asian American Studies Professor is ill.” What do each of these degrees of specificity mean to you, and what do they add to your understanding of your own unwellness?

Each of those sentences points to different structures and different experiences of unwellness. The university can be an incubator of unwellness, encouraging hyperproductivity and compulsory wellness, and professors sit on both the recipient and delivery sides of this system. I am pointing to the way the “model minority” idea shapes even professors’ experiences. And I am calling in my fellow Asian American studies colleagues because even in a field that critiques inequality and injustice, we still cling to compulsory wellness and perpetuate harm against each other.


When you began talking to your Asian American studies students about unwellness, with these various exercises and concepts, what did that unlock?

In Asian immigrant families, there are these ideas of filial debt, of owing your parents for their sacrifice. Asian children of immigrants don’t want to feel like they’re failing their parents. There’s an idea that your success is the best way to show you are grateful. All this starts to intersect and speed up at university. I heard from my students that everyone thought they were playing catch-up; there was a feeling that everyone else was doing better than them. They all had an individualized sense of failure.

On top of that, add the ableist expectations that professors and universities often have and model minoritization – it can be a lot. It feels like a matter of life or death for students, and when you look at things like suicide rates, you see it often is.

How do we square recognizing unwellness with a need or desire to be ambitious, to still take part in things like school or work?

My students often ask me this. They want to know how to opt out of systems that are killing us, but still be able to move through those systems. They gotta graduate, right? They gotta get jobs, pay the bills. My answer isn’t necessarily to drop out of school or not work – although if you want to, that’s OK!

Related: Bigger, stronger, faster: how my exercise addiction nearly killed me

But do not internalize what these systems are telling you. Do not believe that when you struggle, when something is hard, when you “fail”, that it is your fault. Do not believe that something is wrong with you because you need rest or care. We all deserve rest and care – and joy and meaning and safety and belonging – whether or not we achieve things. Whatever spaces you move through, make as much space for your own humanity and the humanity of others as possible. And find others to do this work with you.

How do you recommend people start recognizing their own unwellness?

Recognizing your own unwellness is hard, never-ending work. The first step is finding people who won’t reflect harmful messaging about wellness back to us. We need to create spaces where it is safe to admit that you’re not OK and that life is unbearably hard sometimes – maybe all the time – spaces with others who aren’t afraid to witness your unwellness. I call this “staying by my side at the edge of the abyss”.

You need people who will stay by your side, because only then can we start building the kinds of care we really need. We recognize our unwellness together, and then we figure out what we need together. And then we build it together.

Let’s say I’ve identified and acknowledged my own unwellness … then what?

That’s always a big question: “how do I fix it?” Unfortunately, most of us can’t make large structural changes in a university or other institutions. But we can agitate for them, and start to ask for them. If you’re a student at a university, you can individually ask for accommodations on an assignment, or you can organize with other students to collectively ask for accommodations.

What if the point of a classroom was to create care as a core part of learning?

Even just talking with other people about what you might need can help – we often can’t imagine the things we might want to ask for. We need to build communities where people feel safe to question what they need, and ask for the help they need. Every space you move in is a space for recognizing unwellness, and every space is a space where you can demand care.

Since you’ve been wrestling with these ideas, how have you changed your approach to teaching, working or living?

I’ve changed my teaching quite a bit. I’ve always tried to center my students, but when it became clear to me that my students weren’t well – and the pandemic made that so much clearer – it forced me to rethink and reprioritize. A colleague of mine once put forth this question: what if care were the first learning objective? What if the point of a classroom was to create care as a core part of learning?

Thinking about unwellness, studying it, dwelling in it, has radically transformed my approaches to everything I do. And if unwellness is structural, then so must be care. Self-care is an individual solution to an individual problem, completely divorced from a social context. We need structures of care that address the actual forces that make life feel unbearable.

So what do these structures need to look like – across everything you do? In the classroom. In the workplace. In community spaces. In the family and the home. Asking this question in every space you move through changes every space you move through. And I’ve come to realize that is the only way we can live and maybe make it through this thing called life.

dear elia is out through Duke University Press now.