This article was written by and from the perspective of Sarah Wang, a junior at Arcadia High School.
At the age of 13, self-harm became my personal therapy and way of dealing with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. When I confided in my mother, she told me that it was a “phase” I could overcome myself. I was isolated from the world of professional aid and believed, in my adolescence, that I could cope alone.
Growing up Chinese in America, I struggled to reconcile Western beliefs of mental health, with that of my parents. I did not understand the stigmas nor their root. It left the issue rarely addressed in my home and seemingly nonexistent in the predominantly Asian American communities of the San Gabriel Valley, where the population of Asian American Pacific Islander residents has reached over half a million.
I knew I could not be the only one enduring tribulations fueled by a specific silence and shame.
Identifying the Issue
Asian American stigmas toward mental health are partially rooted in the long-standing traditions of Asian families, explained Christine Yeh, co-director of the University of San Francisco Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE) and a professor at the USF School of Education. These include an urge for privacy, maintaining harmony in society, upholding the perception that one’s family is content and thriving, and being a good representative of one’s family unit or friend group. In addition, generational differences factor into mental health stigmas.
“Foreign-born parents are less likely to understand mental health and support it,” Yeh said.
Some Asian cultures foster the belief that mental health conditions are the cause of shame and embarrassment. Through an online study, Yeh discovered that Asian American students were more likely to talk about their situations when it was anonymous and online rather than in person.
In addition to viewing mental health conditions as disgraceful, the issue is compounded by the lack of culturally appropriate and bilingual mental health services for Asian Americans, she said.
“[An Asian American] may show up to their first session, but not come back. That is not the fault of the Asian American, it is the fault of the services that are not culturally competent,” Yeh said. “Research has consistently shown that Western ideas of mental health do not incorporate traditional Asian ways of thinking about mental health.”
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