Unrealistic expectations can prevent many from getting the mental health care they need. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, talks about the pressure to assimilate while maintaining cultural values.
COVID-19 was particularly challenging for Asian Americans who navigated negative job developments and hate crimes. This is likely connected to the model minority stereotype, which places unrealistic expectations on Asian Americans.
Unfortunately, the model minority myth can make it difficult for Asian Americans to seek help when needed, due to external pressures from work, family, and society, as well as their own internalized racism.
Given the negative impact that the model minority myth continues to have on Asian American individuals, it is crucial to unpack this stereotype.
What does the research say?
A 2015 article reviews how “the model minority myth dates back to the nineteenth century, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to America to work on the Central Pacific Railroad,” and were often praised for their superior work ethic, compared to Black individuals.
After the U.S. involvement in World War II and the internment of about 120,000 Japanese Americans in the 1940s, Asian Americans faced immense pressure to be model citizens in order to better assimilate into the whiteness of American society.
A 2017 article states that Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group, and there is an urgent need to thoroughly detail how the model minority myth shapes their experiences.
Reckoning with your oppressor’s construction
Gloria Wong-Padoongpatt, PhD, says, “The model minority stereotype is of Asian culture, particularly East Asian culture, which, of course, does not include all Asian communities.”
Wong-Padoongpatt explains, “Brown Asians are left out of the narrative. This stereotype was constructed by oppressors, so obviously the impact is dynamic. That is, this stereotype—in my observation—affects how mental health care systems approach Asian communities, which is that these communities are mentally strong and do not need our services.”
In this way, Wong-Padoongpatt notes that Asian Americans may not seek services due to such factors as the stigma of mental illness, and cultural values that may align with collectivism and loss of face.
Only one of many barriers
Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says, “The model minority myth prevents Asian Americans from seeking mental health support, as it makes them believe they need to be strong and a model minority in this country, without support from others.”
Additionally, in Asian culture, admitting to mental health issues may be seen as a weakness, according to Lagoy. “It is generally something looked down upon by one’s family,” he says.
Lagoy encourages, “We can combat these pressures by understanding the history of this myth, and by encouraging friends and family to get mental health support when it is needed.”
Asian Americans may be less likely than other groups to seek help with their mental health, as Lagoy notes they still have certain beliefs about mental illness that may be stigmatized by their families.
Asian American clients of Lagoy’s have committed to educating themselves, as knowing the history of this myth has encouraged some to get necessary care.
Many Asian American families are becoming more open to getting mental health care, according to Lagoy.
“I have also noticed that Asian American families of patients have been more supportive and less judgmental in recent times than in the past,” he says.
A grossly general blanket term
“It’s a grossly general blanket term that groups an entire, diverse group of people under one umbrella that defines how we’re ‘supposed’ to be, think, and act,” says Licensed psychologist, Amy Nasamran, PhD. “The term ‘model minority’ sets Asian Americans up to think that they have to be perfect across all areas of life.”
Although she grew up hearing the term “model minority” as an Asian American, Nasamran notes that she just learned about the history of this term. “I was surprised to hear that it originated as a way to commend Asian Americans for ‘successfully’ integrating into white society.”
Nasamran highlights, “We know that there can be striking psychological impacts on immigrants during the assimilation process. Studies have shown that assimilation—while adaptive in some ways—can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.”
Assimilation is not just about fitting in with a new culture. It can be a very difficult process, and even if it looks like someone is “successfully” assimilating from the outside, Nasamran notes that it can really take a toll mentally and emotionally.
“Historically, our older generations of Asians have been more likely to attribute symptoms to physical causes, or our parents and elders may be more likely to suggest traditional medicine routes to address symptoms that are actually mental health related,” she says.
Unfortunately, when taught to manage stress and cope through support only from one’s family, Nasamran notes that it may be hard to seek mental health support, especially if their challenges are dismissed.
Despite working with some of the most intelligent, hard-working clients who are accomplished, successful, and in many ways, fit the “model minority” stereotype, Nasamran notes they are reclaiming their narratives by understanding that they do not have to be perfect.
“They’re learning to understand their unique strengths and recognizing where they need support, and they’re willing to be learners,” she says.
Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.
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