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New Generation of Asian-American Women are Fighting to Normalize Mental Health Treatment

Posted: October 10, 2018

When Kristina Wong’s mother told her if anyone finds out she went to therapy she would never be able to get a job, it became crystal clear just how taboo discussions of mental health were in her family.

“That made it clear that my joy had a monetary value, and it was that shameful to go about seeking help or even talking to someone about your problems,” Wong, a third-generation Chinese-American, told GMA.

That mentality reflects a broader sentiment within the Asian American community.

While Asian-Americans have a lower reported rate of psychiatric disorders and suicide compared to Caucasians within the U.S., they are three times less likely to seek mental health help, according to the data collected by the National Latino and Asian American Study.

There are a number of reasons why, according to experts. Discussing mental health concerns is “taboo” in a variety of Asian-American communities where seeking help is stigmatized, explained Koko Nishi, a licensed psychologist on the counseling staff at San Diego State University. As a result, many Asian Americans often dismiss, deny or neglect their symptoms.

The idea that a person can be hampered by something that can’t be seen by the naked eye is unacceptable in some Asian cultures, Nishi said.

“There’s a lot of shame involved,” especially among elderly Asian-Americans who are afraid of losing face, said Wesley Mukoyama, a clinical social worker and former director for Yu Ai Kai, a senior center for Japanese-Americans.

Even though Asian-Americans, who came as immigrants and refugees and are at higher risk of depression and suicide due to trauma from their past, when they do seek help, they often report the physical symptoms that are results of psychological problems, according to Nishi.

That’s why organizations like Yu Ai Kai focus on less traditional treatments, ones that don’t require residents to directly address their feelings, Mukoyama said.

With 59 percent of all Asian-Americans born in a different country, according to Pew, language barriers, cultural stigma and lack of understanding of mental health resources are factors that contribute to the issue as well. Many come from countries without accessible mental health care and in certain cultures some of the terms for mental health don’t even exist in the language, said Nishi.

There is a word, however, for shame in the Filipino language called “hiya.”

It’s a “particular kind of shame” when one has failed to live a “happy and harmonious life” that is in conjunction with society’s norms and expectations, Tess Paras, a Filipino-American actress and writer, told “Good Morning America.”


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