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Asian American/Pacific Islander Communities and Mental Health

Mental Health America works nationally and locally to raise awareness about mental health and ensures that those at-risk for mental illnesses and related disorders receive proper, timely and effective treatment. MHA incorporates culturally competent strategies to ensure that it is effectively addressing the treatment and psychosocial needs of consumers and families with diverse values, beliefs, sexual orientations, and backgrounds that vary by race, ethnicity and/or language.


The following statistics were taken from the “Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity Supplement” to the 1999 Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health.

Demographics/Societal Issues

  • Approximately 4% of the U.S. population, more than 11 million people, identify themselves as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders (AA/PIs). The AA/PI population is expected to double in the next 25 years. About 54% of AA/PIs live in western States, especially California and Hawaii. 18% live in the Northeast, 17% in the South, and 11% in the Midwest.
  • The AA/PI category is extremely diverse, with about 43 different ethnic subgroups. While the majority of AA/PIs were born outside of the U.S., a large proportion of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans are 4th and 5th generation Americans. Since the mid-1960s, the AA/PI population has grown rapidly with high rates of immigration from China, India, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia. Most Pacific Islanders are not immigrants, but are descendants of the original inhabitants of land taken over by the United States – Hawaii, Tonga, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Caroline Islands, and Palau.
  • AA/PIs speak over 100 languages and dialects, and about 35% live in households in which there is limited English proficiency in those over age 13. Some subgroups are more limited in English proficiency than others: 61% of Hmong-, 56% of Cambodian-, 52% of Laotian-, 44% of Vietnamese-, 41% of Korean-, and 40% of Chinese-American households are linguistically isolated.
  • In 2000, 44% of Asian-American adults had a college or professional degree compared to 28% of white Americans. 58% of South Asian Americans (from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) fell into this group. In contrast, in 1990 only 12% of Hawaiians and 10% of other Pacific Islanders had completed college, and 2 out of 3 Cambodian-, Hmong-, and Laotian-American adults had not completed high school.
  • The average family income for AA/PIs is higher than the national average. However, AA/PIs still have a lower per capita income and higher rate of poverty than non-Hispanic, white Americans. In 1990, about 14% of the whole AA/PI group was living in poverty, compared to 13.5% of all Americans, and 9% of non-Hispanic whites. Among subgroups, poverty rates ranged from a low of 6% for Filipino Americans to a high of 64% among Hmong Americans.


  • Knowledge of the mental health needs and attitudes of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders regarding mental illness is limited. Few epidemiological studies have included Asian Americans or people whose English is limited.
  • The National Asian Women’s Health Organization (NAWHO) sponsored a study, Breaking the Silence: A Study of Depression Among Asian American Women, that found:
    • Conflicting cultural values are impacting Asian-American women's sense of control over their life decisions
    • Feeling responsible, yet unable to meet biased and unrealistic standards set by families and society, contributes to low self-esteem among Asian-American women
    • Asian-American women witness depression in their families, but have learned from their Asian cultures to maintain silence on the subject
    • Asian-American women fear stigma for themselves, but more so for their families


The following statistics were taken from the “Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity Supplement” to the 1999 Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health.

  • Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders are not over-represented among high-need, vulnerable populations, such as people who were homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems. However, they are highly represented among refugees. Many Southeast Asian refugees are at risk for PTSD associated with trauma experienced before and after immigration to the U.S. One study found that 70% of Southeast Asian refugees receiving mental health care met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
  • Older Asian-American women have the highest suicide rate of all women over age 65 in the United States.

Treatment Issues

The following statistics were taken from the “Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity Supplement” to the 1999 Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health.

  • There are very few studies that examine the response of AA/PIs and other minorities to mental health treatment. One study found that AA/PI clients had poorer short-term outcomes and less satisfaction with individual psychotherapy than did white Americans. Another study found that older Chinese Americans with symptoms of depression responded to cognitive-behavior therapy as did other multiethnic populations. AA/PI clients matched with therapists of the same ethnicity are less likely to drop out of treatment than those without an ethnic match. Preliminary studies suggest that AA/PIs respond clinically to psychotropic medicines in a manner similar to white Americans but at lower average dosages.


The following statistics were taken from the “Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity Supplement” to the 1999 Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health.

  • Nearly 1 out of 2 Asian Americans will have difficulty accessing mental health treatment because they do not speak English or cannot find services that meet their language needs.
  • Overall, about 21% of Asian Americans lack health insurance, compared to 16% of all Americans. The rate of Medicaid coverage for eligible, Asian-American families is well below that of whites. It has been suggested that these lower rates are, in part, due to widespread but mistaken concerns among immigrants that enrolling in Medicaid jeopardizes applications for citizenship.
  • Asian Americans appear to have an extremely low use of mental health services relative to other U.S. populations.  Among Asian Americans who use services, the severity of their disturbances tends to be high, perhaps because Asian Americans tend to delay seeking treatment until symptoms reach crisis proportions. While more research is needed, shame and stigma are believed to figure prominently in the low use of services.

Partnerships and Resources


2000 N. Beauregard Street,
6th Floor Alexandria, VA 22311

Phone (703) 684.7722

Toll Free (800) 969.6642

Fax (703) 684.5968

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