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Asian American Mental Health and the ‘Model Minority’ Myth
May 7, 2018
By Jennifer Cheang, MHA Digital Marketing Manager
Not only is May observed as Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s also designated as Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Based on data from www.MHAScreening.org, we know that Asian Americans are least likely to have a history of diagnosis even though 57% of those who completed a mental health screen scored moderately to severely depressed. Asian Americans are also three times less likely to seek mental health services.
Growing up as the child of a refugee who fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, I often felt like I had no right as a first-generation American to talk about my mental health problems.
I often hear this from Asian-American friends as well. When presenting a problem or struggle to our family members or friends, we are often told that we do not understand what struggling is, or that our problems are invalid.
Compounded with the expectations set forth by friends, teachers, and community members to excel as part of the “Model Minority” myth, I’ve watched breakdown after breakdown of bright individuals who could no longer withstand the pressure of looking perfect, acting perfect, and being perfect.
The "Model Minority" myth is a constant stressor. When your community embraces the idea that you are destined to succeed due to your racial background, failure comes as a devastating hit to your mental health.
But we’re not alone.
There are over 2.2 million people who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander who had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year. The overall suicide rate for Asian Americans is half that of the non-Hispanic White population, but Asian American students are more likely to attempt suicide than non-Hispanic white students.
But what can we do to shed light on mental illness in our community?
- Get informed. Learn more about how mental health conditions can affect you physically as well as emotionally. A lot of people will reach Stage 4 of a mental health condition before they are provided support, but do not realize their physical symptoms (headaches, too much/not enough sleep, etc.) could be the first signs. It might be easier to explain to your family that you’d like to see a doctor for physical symptoms first, and then bring up your mental health concerns to your primary care provider.
- Speak out. Mental health conditions affect people regardless of their background, but how we experience mental health conditions, and how we are treated because of them vary greatly from person to person. By normalizing the conversation around mental health in our communities we can help dispel the stigma surrounding asking for help.
- Be a support system. Asian Americans tend to seek out support from personal networks such as close friends, family members, and religious community members rather than seek professional help for mental health concerns. There are many ways you can help someone with a mental illness navigate the treatment system and work towards recovery. As in any relationship, emotional and practical support is always needed. Knowing when and how to give support can be difficult to figure out, however. Learn more about how to support someone close to you living with a mental health condition.
Mental Health Month and Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month are not mutually exclusive. Mental health affects anyone no matter what their background is. It’s an issue that intersects all parts of our lives.
However, this month is a chance for us to speak out, highlight our stories, and be proud of minding our mental health while celebrating our rich histories.