• Project Angel Island

How are Asians Affected by Mental Health Disorders?

An important component of proper treatment for mental health disorders is the ability of professionals to recognize the specific behaviors of certain ethnic groups and act on abnormalities. The fact that Asians make up an almost insignificant number of mental health specialists, paired with the extreme stigma against mental health disorders found in Asian communities, creates an environment where those who need help avoid seeking treatment or utilizing mental health services because doing so would be admitting they have a mental health disorder, which would bring shame to their family’s name.

In the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, if you admit you need help for your mental health, parents and other family members might experience fear and shame. They may assume that your condition is a result of their poor parenting or a hereditary flaw and that you’re broken because of them. Seeking help from those outside the immediate family also conflicts with the Asian- and Pacific Islander-specific cultural value of interdependence. And even for those who do seek help, language barriers and a lack of awareness for mental health services/resources serve as separate challenges.

In this environment, Asian-Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts, and even then, more than 13% of AAPI was diagnosed with a mental illness in the past year. The suicide rate among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2016 was approximately half of the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data; for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between the ages of 15 and 19, suicide was the leading cause of death in 2016, accounting for 31.8 percent of all deaths.

The pressure to succeed academically, financially and career-wise is considered a common cause for depression among Asian Americans, said Silvia Yan, program director of adult services and training director at the Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers (APCTC). Southeast Asian refugees are another group that has battled depression and trauma as a result of their history with violence, according to Lan Nguyen-Chawkins, a psychologist at APCTC. Cambodian Americans carry the experience of torture and working in labor camps, while Vietnamese Americans and Laotian Americans endured refugee camps after fleeing warfare in their countries. Because refugees survived the war without talking, some may not see a need to talk about what they've gone through or their feelings about it, Nguyen-Chawkins said. So when these people do seek help for mental disorders, they are often at chronic levels.

There is a common misconception that being mentally ill means you’re “crazy”; AAPI doesn’t talk about it much because they believe people should just “get over it” or “be stronger”. The “model minority myth” (the expectation of AAPI to be hardworking, smart, and uncomplaining), also contributes to the stigma against mental health disorders in AAPI communities. For Jamie*, a 26-year-old from Hawaii, that meant that even when she did get professional help, her Chinese mother was “extremely hostile” to the idea of her having any mental illnesses. “When I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in high school, one of the first things [my mother] said was, ‘Why would you do this to me?’” she says. “That pretty much sums up her attitude: Mental illnesses weren't real, and if they manifested, it was my way of victimizing her. She also was extremely resistant to my going on psychiatric meds; her opinion was that I should be able to just cope with myself. We were raised with the mentality that mental health issues were for white people; breakdowns and struggles were a luxury not afforded to us. When I was in junior high school, a friend of mine, who was white, spent a month in a psychiatric hospital. My mother would make comments about the weakness of character, how the white parents must coddle their daughter.” Discussing mental health and educating people about it is key to de-stigmatizing depression and suicide.

So much of this stigma comes from the fact that there isn’t much awareness about mental illness in the AAPI community; Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, which means that authorities need to do a better job of providing access to culturally-sensitive mental health services. Another important step to ensuring access to culturally appropriate mental health services for Asian Americans is encouraging those who could help/understand the community to consider careers in the mental health field; AAPI are less likely to seek help than other ethnicities, and even when we do, it’s hard to find therapists or counselors who are culturally competent enough to understand our intersecting identities. Many AAPI whose parents either refuse or can’t afford therapy resort to online forums like r/AsianParentStories (Reddit) to vent their frustration and ask for advice. It’s important for us to talk to the AAPI community about mental health: show them that mental illness isn’t a weakness, it’s a real disease that requires real treatment and support. Share informative articles and discuss the signs and symptoms of mental illness so that when it shows up, your community will understand and support the people who are suffering instead of shaming them.

*Name changed

Here’s an uplifting story about an AAPI father-daughter discussion about mental health that improved their relationship, which is a testament to how de-stigmatization can improve our community as a whole:

Himani Mehta



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