Mental Health Issues Are Underreported in the Asian American Community and the Nation

By Yaling Hou

Pata Suyemoto describes her feelings of depression as being tired, having dark thoughts, not wanting to talk and stressing out. “You cannot control it. No matter your feeling or [the state of your] physical body. This is a whole-personal experience,” Suyemoto said. She didn’t feel all right when she was as young as 12 years old. Now she is 58.

Suyemoto witnessed her father who suffered from mental illness.

“My father doesn’t believe in therapy and just chooses to tolerate the illness by himself. I don’t want to be like that. In our community, we have to talk about it to break the silence,” Suyemoto said. Suyemoto believes that the best solution is education and conversation.

Unlike most mental illness patients, Suyemoto is more open to talk about what happened to her and why that happened as well as how to look at mental health issues as an Asian American. She speaks publicly to bravely share her family stories, especially her personal experience even though the first step for her was scary.

“But it’s ok,” Suyemoto said. “This is a big step for me to let wider people start to pay attention to emotional wellness.”

“Western culture separates body and mind into two parts, while Asian culture believes that body and mind are holistic. Cultural conflicts and having two cultural perspectives make mental health issues even harder for most Asian Americans,” Suyemoto said.

This project, “Happy Paradox in the Asian Americans community”, focuses on one of the non-psychiatric mental health factors: family conflict in the Asian (American) parenting styles—the relationship between first-generation immigrant parents and their Asian American children. This conflict includes many social phenomena, such as immigration, acculturation, cross-cultural identity and differences in values due to the impact of the heritage languages and cultures.

“Looking for Luke” is a short documentary produced by Clay Center for Youth Health Mind, exploring what happened of a brilliant Harvard student died suddenly and unexpectedly. (a screenshot from the webpage: Looking for Luka film)

A Massachusetts General Hospital-affiliated center, Clay Center for Youth Healthy Mind produced a documentary focusing on mental illness. It featured a short story to investigate why depression, a treatable mental illness, caused a brilliant Asian American student from Harvard who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015.

It is a big step for the Asian American community. The victim’s parents allowed the camera crew to put them under the spotlight and share this heartbreaking story with the public.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Asian American youth.

Making the issue even more complicated is that some of the reasons that lead Asian American youth to mental problems are different from other races.

Asian Americans youth suicidal ideations or suicide attempts mainly trigger from non-psychiatric reason(s), like sociocultural factors, such as discrimination, family conflict, and low acculturation.

SOURCE: School climate and parental involvement buffer the risk of peer victimization on suicidal thoughts and behaviors among Asian American middle school students. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 9(4), 297. (data visualization produced by Yaling Hou)

Over half (52%) of the participants were characterized by non-psychiatric factors including “sociocultural factors (e.g., discrimination, family conflict, and low acculturation), medical problems and limited functioning” although some of them (6%–16%) did report some psychiatric disorder or symptoms.


SOURCE: the National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS) (infographic produced by Yaling Hou)

The American Psychological Association recently reported that only 8.6% of Asian Americans with a psychological problem sought some form of assistance from a mental health provider, compared with 18% — a rate of a general level in nationwide.

“Asian American students are a group that rarely ask for assistance on mental health compared with other races,” said Ming Chang, a licensed-bilingual (English and Mandarin) psychological counselor, according to her working experience.

In Asian society, mental illness is like a taboo or a big no-no for families because they feel like it brings shame on them. They assume that mental illness is a hereditary flaw or the result of their poor parenting, so people will judge them harshly and unfairly.

Yna Aggabao used to work for the mental health non-profit NAMI Massachusetts, which focused on the Asian-American community. “Mental health is definitely still a difficult topic for Asian Americans to talk about or deal with,” said Aggabao, “There’s a general mindset where mental illness can feel like or be construed as failing yourself, your family, or your community, which is obviously wrong.”

People will feel stigmatized and insulted when professionals or even family members suggest that they see a psychiatrist for mental issues.

Pooja S., who prefers to withhold her last name to protect her privacy, an Indian-American, said that after suggesting her grandmother get therapies, her grandmother refused to talk to her for a while.

Sydney Rae Chin said that even for her, an Asian American from a younger generation, overcoming the difficulty of asking for help with mental illness is still a challenge. “I think some folks’ general view of asking for help is correlated to loss of pride especially when it comes to mental health.”

There is also an exception.

Kasie Jun, an American-born Korean, said that her experience showed her as an outlier. “My parents know I am seeing a therapist and taking medicine. I’m very upfront about it and I don’t feel like I need to hide it from them. And I’m like this because my parents raised me with the idea that you should be vocal about how you’re feeling,” said Jun.

In the U.S., only half the adolescents with depression are diagnosed, and among them, approximately 60% do not receive appropriate treatment. According to a study from Stanford University, wealthy and well-educated families seek more supports from mental health counseling than lower-income and limited-education families.

This situation is amplified in the youth Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community due to stigma and cultural barriers.

Even though the Asian American community is suffering the “model minority” myth, representing as an ethnic minority group that well-educated and economically stable minority, the truth is, according to Chan, compared with other races, lacking knowledge in mental illness is a general problem in the Asian American community.

And like other races, many new Asian immigrant’s parents have worked very hard just to earn their bread and they even don’t have time to think about mental health in their children’s growing-up process.

“I think it’s an issue in society overall but there are some cultural nuances in Asian American families and communities that make it a more highly concentrated issue,” said Aggabao.

Education will play in important rule to the community and the family, according to Psychologist Xiaoyan Fan. “Let’s talk about it. We should let parents and families know what’s the benefit of mental health therapies,” she said.

Fan said more and more organizations and non-profit groups are setting up more parenting workshops freely to educate Asian and Asian American parents about mental health development, like the Center for Cross-cultural Emotional Wellness at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I wish my personal experience wasn’t really a rare case. I’m not saying it was easy or smooth, but my parents have always tried to understand as much as possible,” Jun said.

About Yaling Hou 5 Articles
Yaling is a videographer and a bilingual writer who accept journalism education both in China and America. She is passionate about education, cross-cultural communication and youth development. She writes, produces, edits and assists multimedia stories for organizations like Sampan Newspaper and Chronicle, WCVB in Boston.