In the face of cultural as well as systemic barriers, many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants are struggling with the constant emotional onslaught. Therapists and community members say it’s common for immigrants, Asian or otherwise, to want to avoid making trouble or drawing attention to themselves. But Asian immigrants in particular, as well as many Asian Americans, also face some traditions that discourage speaking up and turning to mental health resources.
In many East Asian cultures, “there’s this sort of implicit understanding that you’re to suffer and you are to endure it,” said Steven Sust, a Chinese American who is a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist at Stanford University. “There’s a Chinese statement like ‘bitter life,’ or ‘life is bitterness’ — ‘meng fu,’ ” Sust added, which, he said, means “to just sort of grin and bear it.”
This sensibility can have a devastating effect, experts say, compounded by a lack of mental health resources in the necessary languages and a shortage of counselors who are not only sensitive to these realities but who share Asian heritage. Asian psychologists make up about 4 percent of the profession, while the Asian share of the nation’s population is closer to 6 percent.
Although the numbers of Asians experiencing anxiety and depression is rising, Asians in the United States access mental health care at half the rate of other racial groups, according to a 2019 study published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the past few years, however, social justice and grass-roots Asian American organizations have come together to encourage Asians to speak up and challenge the bias against mental health care. They’ve held rallies, offered free intervention workshops, and created directories of resources. And they’re not shy about taking on the cultural norms that have kept Asians silent.
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