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What Mental Health? The Stigma Around Mental Health Care in Asian-American Communities


Written by Rithika Ramkumar

So…What’s Going On?

In a lot of Asian communities, struggles seem to be limited to world-racking, life-altering events, like the death of a loved one, homelessness, war. I can’t speak for everyone (obviously), but based on my interactions with my family, my extended family, and other parts of my community, mental health concerns really only seem to matter if you can make a movie about it. The simple day-to-day concerns or even undiagnosed mental health disorders seem largely ignored because, I suppose at least, on paper there’s nothing there. How can you justify needing therapy? Or medications?


Clearly, this isn’t right.


The Facts

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian-Americans from the ages of 20 to 24 years old. Roughly 33% of deaths in young Asian-American adults is due to suicide, and though 18% of the general US population that sought mental health services, only about 8.6% of Asian-Americans did so (“Why Asian”; Louie).


Why?

A pivotal reason for these differences and stark statistics is due to culture. Asian immigrants bring centuries of repression, generational trauma, and beliefs about mental health with them when they immigrate, building up cultural barriers that seem mile-high to many in crisis.


“Asians come from traditional collectivist societies that value interdependence over independence” (Louie). As a result, the idea of protecting the family and preserving reputations in the face of society, both as new Americans and to others within the immigrant community, is of the utmost importance. As a result, pressures and stress build up in many young people, as cultures conflict but people also venture out of the nest and inevitably do something that may go against centuries of tradition. As an Asian-American myself, I think disappointing your parents is rather inevitable, and I have a first hand seat to the kind of terror and panic that it can bring.


Feeling pressure to be something you’re not can cause people to hide who they are or their “failures”; this doesn’t just mean that pressures can lead to mental illness, but mental illness itself can be viewed as a “failure”, leading to people going undiagnosed or unhelped for years.


Additionally, Asians face racism and the “model minority” myth. Asian Americans can suffer for years with feeling accepted or understood by Western peers, contributing to illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Additionally, Asians are constantly told they are the model of the American immigrant: academically intelligent, financially successful, and professionally fulfilled. When young Asian-Americans face this model myth and are human it can cause great havoc. People want to be accepted, and some may feel that if they aren’t the model of perfect behavior, they are a shame to society. Also, if people do not fill the mold of who they are “supposed to be”, they may have feelings of depression or anxiety (“Why Asian”).


There is also a mental health stigma among Asian communities. Mental health can be a taboo topic or seen as a weakness, and rationally, Asian-Americans don’t want to seem “crazy” for having feelings (Louie; “Why Asian”), even if that’s clearly not the real situation. Many suffer in silence, and while some go to their families, churches, or other friends, many are left grasping at straws (“Why Asian”).


So What Should We Do?

It’s obviously daunting to try to change centuries of repression and struggle. As a humble blog writer, I can do little but point at solutions that have already been put out into the world, such as workshops specifically for Asian-Americans, teaching young Asian-Americans about risk behaviors, and decreasing barriers to access while promoting cultural awareness, such as by placing mental health professions in college dorms and improving coordination between existing mental health services and Asian community organizations (“Why Asian”; Louie).


I think the progress made is heartening, but there’s plenty to do! Remember, if you are struggling, the mental health hotline (1-800-422-0009) is always available.


Sources

How Asian Shame and Stigma Contribute to Suicide. NAMI Greenville, 13 July 2020, www.namigreenvillesc.org/how-asian-shame-and-stigma-contribute-to-suicide/. Accessed 1 Mar. 2023.

Louie, Sam Sam. "How Asian Shame and Stigma Contribute to Suicide." National Alliance on Mental Health Greenville, NAMI, 13 July 2020, www.namigreenvillesc.org/how-asian-shame-and-stigma-contribute-to-suicide/. Accessed 1 Mar. 2023.

"Why Asian Americans Don't Seek Help for Mental Illness." Mass General Brigham McLean, McLean Hospital, 1 May 2022, www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/why-asian-americans-dont-seek-help-mental-illness. Accessed 1 Mar. 2023.


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