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Cultural Stereotypes Impact Mental Health in our Asian-American Community — A Personal Perspective from a Hope Xchange Intern
Hope Xchange extends its heartfelt thanks to Danni Yang, our amazing social media and marketing intern, for sharing her story of growing up in the Asian-American community and her perspective on the interplay between cultural stereotypes, stigma and reaching out for help during minority mental health awareness month.
In the popular Broadway hit “Hamilton,”Lin Manuel champions immigrants with the popular lyric “immigrants, we get the job done.” No one exemplified this notion more in my life than my mother, who came to this country at the age of 35 after living her entire life in China.
She barely spoke the language, needed to re-start her medical training, and had a three-year old baby at home. I would watch her study for her boards after working 8-10 hours a day, yet still manage to send me to school in the mornings. Her story comes to mind every time I am reviewing for a test until 3 AM, when I think about my future life plans, and when I am frustrated at the way my life is going. If she can achieve all of this, then certainly I have no excuse to give up.
What Happens When You Are In Middle School and You Think You’re Not Asian Enough?
Growing up in an Asian-American household, we are told to keep working harder, even when you feel like failing. From elementary to middle school, I struggled greatly with math, despite what stereotypes might suggest. With the Bs and sometimes even Cs piling up on my report cards while students at my advanced middle school soared, I felt increasingly worse about myself. Countless times I thought I wasn’t “Asian” enough or that there was something physically wrong with me that caused struggle with math.
This mental mindset could make my thoughts spiral out of control — what started as a dejected reaction to my grades blew up into a full panic about my life amounting to nothing. All of this over a few grades on a report card. This mentality was incredibly unhealthy and constantly caused me to compare myself to my Asian friends, feeling inferior and worthless when I didn’t measure up.
We did study mental health illnesses like depression, self-harm and suicide in health class, but I never wanted to link my own experiences or feelings to those subjects. Surely, my own anger and frustration were just signs of weakness or that I wasn’t trying hard or studying enough. Or, so I thought.
Asian-Americans Less Likely to Reach Out for Mental Health Services
However, this story is not unique to me. The American Psychological Association (APA) published research that indicates Asian Americans are three times less likely to reach out and seek mental health services.
Furthermore, stressors include the notion of fulfilling this “model minority” role, the attitude that hard work should solve any problem (including mental illness) and the insane pressure of success.
As the child of an immigrant, I constantly felt (and still feel) the unnamed weight of my mom’s sacrifice for me to attend school in America and the unspoken need to rise above and create a better life for myself and my family. Beyond the fear of failing affecting my own life, I also think about how much my mom has worked to help me succeed.
After all this support, how could I still fail?
Many of my Asian American classmates echoed this same sentiment, all of us pushing ourselves as we competed not only with each other, but with our parents expectations of each other. Looking back, it was incredibly damaging that we fought over who was more stressed out, as if there was some crown to win for having the most work and anxiety.
Battling “Asian Failing” and Other Cultural Stereotypes
When Hollywood reduces your culture and the culture of dozens of different races from the Asian pacific to one generic stereotype of the “bookworm nerd acing every test” in every part of the entertainment industry, it is hard to see yourself as anything other. If you aren’t living up to this stereotype, you are “Asian failing,” as if how much you can identify with your own race is dependent on how close your grades are to perfection.
Yet, later in high school when I pulled my grades up to the top of the class, my hard work was still reduced to a mere comment on genetics, that I succeed only because I am Asian. Not to say cultural biases do not play a role in mental illness, but this skewed self-identity, as noted in the APA study, is certainly a factor at hand.
Just Because You Can Not See Mental Illness Does Not Mean It Is Not Real
Moreover, in the Asian American community — and this sentiment may be shared in other cultural groups as well — mental illness is rarely regarded as a real disease like cancer or heart disease. Many believe that since you cannot physically see mental illness, it is not a serious health condition.
I have seen parents dismissing a child’s stress as just normal teenage behavior, that it was normal to break down crying after grades or faint in class because you didn’t get enough sleep because you were studying late the night before. These behaviors were not the warning signs of something more strenuous brewing underneath, rather just indicators that your child was pushing through and working hard. There is a large belief of separation of the body and the mind.
Viewing Mental Illness for What It Really Is - The Mind Body Connection
After taking a few neuroscience and psychology courses, I have learned that this sentiment is of course, false. The mind and the body are ultimately connected, with MRI scans truly showing the physical damage to brain tissue from this real illness. Fundamentally, this stigma surrounding admitting failure in times of challenge needs to change, as countless lives are at stake.
By talking with people and promoting the seriousness of mental illness, people stand a chance at recovery. Having a strong support system is crucial and as public awareness increases regarding mental illness, I hope that fewer kids will feel this unnatural pressure the way I did growing up.
Now, when my mom and I talk about my workload and stress, she actually encourages me to take less on, relax, and try to enjoy my life more. I’m incredibly lucky that my circumstances changed when I left for college, but I know that this is not the case for everyone.
Knowing this, it is phenomenal that congress members such as Representatives Judy Chu are not only bringing up these facts in the media spotlight, but also introducing legislation to ameliorate the causes and effects of mental health stigma among Asian-Americans.