Asian-Americans must open mental health dialogue

Janhavi Nemawarkar

Stigma surrounding the topic of mental health is prevalent — although there has been a recent push for awareness, people who suffer from illnesses are often viewed as “weak” or are not taken seriously. This can be a significant barrier for the large segment of the population that needs access to treatment. But even among the general population, Asian-Americans in particular face unique barriers in starting the necessary conversations about mental health. 

Although Asian-Americans are comprised of over 16 ethnic groups, some of which come from vastly different backgrounds, certain general trends emerge in the way they deal with mental health problems. Asian-Americans are significantly less likely to reach out for mental health treatment than other ethnic groups — 17.9 percent of the overall national population seeks help versus 8.6 percent of the Asian-American population. 

This is not reflective of a decreased need. While the suicide rate among Asian-Americans is about half of the national rate, studies have found the lifetime prevalence of mental health disorders to be on par with the general population. Certain groups display higher rates of mental health problems than the national average, with Asian-American women and college students reporting high rates of suicidal thoughts, while southeast Asians report higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

These problems may be exacerbated by the resistance to seek treatment. Asian-Americans may not seek out treatment because it might be seen as admitting a problem and thus a weakness. Certain concepts in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino cultures place high importance on saving the family’s public face.  The “model minority myth” — the false idea that Asian-Americans are the most “successful” minority in America because of their work ethic — perpetuates a standard of perfection for Asian-Americans impossible to uphold. 

Alex Bi, an electrical engineering junior who serves as the director of political engagement for the Asian Desi Pacific Islander Collective, noticed a cultural tendency in which some parents may not provide an accepting space for their child to reveal their emotional problems.

“I think across immigrants from different Asian cultures, people don’t talk about being sad or depressed, and kids are expected to be fine,” Bi said. “Asian-Americans of our generation might want to express those emotions, but they may not have room for that.”

Children of immigrants are particularly vulnerable to the cultural stigma associated with talking about mental health. Family conflict affects people’s mental health regardless of race, but studies have shown it has a stronger effect on Asian-Americans because of the cultural emphasis placed on family interdependence. And in immigrant families, the stress of assimilating to the new culture while maintaining a connection to their heritage may add to the pressure on second-generation Asian-Americans.

Understanding the specific cultural circumstances typical of Asian-American identities fosters a sense of solidarity within the community and helps dispel the notion that there is a single, perfect ideal of success that they must emulate. Bi believes that opening up dialogue within students is critical to raise awareness on the fact that Asian-Americans go through the same mental health struggles as everyone else — and that it’s absolutely fine. 

“Spreading the word that there are a unique set of cultural barriers that Asian Americans face is important,” Bi said. “And it’s good for us students to make space for each other to talk about these things. It’s so wonderful to be able to relate to other people and find out they’ve gone through the same things as me.”

We have to change the way we conceptualize mental health disorders across the board. Focusing on the cultural contexts that contribute to the stigma among ethnic groups is a start. 

Nemawarkar is a Plan II sophomore from Austin. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @janhavin97.