My parents immigrated to the United States to give my siblings and me a better life. They gave up everything they had established in Laos so we could have a chance at something better. My mother always taught me to work hard to achieve my dreams. When things got tough, I was told I needed to be tougher. It’s normal to want to make your parents proud, but you shouldn’t overwork yourself or think that just because you failed to reach a certain threshold of success that they won’t love you anymore.
My parents worked very hard to provide for me and my brothers. I never wanted to let my parents down. But it got to a point where I was so worried about not making my parents proud that it began to take a toll on my mental health. I expressed these concerns with my mother — all she could say was, “Try harder.” I felt very oppressed with all my concerns going unheard, which made me feel like my feelings didn’t matter. There is often a stigma surrounding mental health in Asian culture, and going to therapy is generally not accepted in our culture. When I spoke up about my deteriorating mental health, I was told that it was all in my head. I learned to bottle up all my emotions in order to not shame my parents. I didn’t want myself and others to think that they were bad parents.
I made an effort every week to visit my school counselor to vent all my problems and work through my issues. I didn’t have a high opinion of myself at the time, and often felt hopeless. My grades were at their worst in middle school, and I didn’t have friends that I could regularly hang out with. I felt like an alien both at school and at home. I would isolate myself in my bedroom just ‘cause it was easier than fighting with my mom about everything she thought I was doing wrong. I was so ashamed of myself that most nights I would cry myself to sleep thinking my parents would be better off without me there to mess things up. I finally opened up to my counselor about wanting to hurt myself and wanting to die. They immediately called my parents, and I was rushed to the hospital, where I was admitted.
After staying there for a week, I was able to come home and start my outpatient program. I would see a therapist once every two weeks, and I was put on medication. Introducing all this to my family was rough: they couldn’t understand where these feelings of sadness were coming from. They still gave their best effort and came to my group therapy with me. It meant a lot to me that they were trying, even though they didn’t understand. It reassured me that I could get better, with their support.
I remember talking with one of the psychiatrists assigned to me at the time that depression was common for Asian Americans in their teens. It got me wondering why many Asian Americans don’t talk about mental health more often. Why do Asian Americans avoid therapy?
While white America’s view on mental health is still lacking, research on health mindsets of other ethnicities and socioeconomic groups is even more limited. The evidence shows that Americans of color and of lower socioeconomic status think differently about mental health than middle-class European Americans. It was reported in a 2014 U.S census that Asian American women feared the mental health stigma for themselves, but even more so for their families, due to an intense cultural fear of familial shame. A common traditional belief for many Asian Americans is that family comes first. Each individual has a clearly defined role to fulfill within the family hierarchy, and are expected to function within that role no matter what. When we act outside of that role, it causes us extreme psychological distress. This is especially true for Asian women, who often feel responsible for meeting unrealistic standards at a young age, set by families and society.
There is a stereotype known as the “model minority” that incorrectly assumes that all Asian Americans are wealthy and highly educated. We are seen as successful by default, and we are culturally expected to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. The moment we show signs of weakness, it is viewed as a burden on the family. If we are considered too emotional, we are perceived as someone who complains too much and doesn’t do anything to solve our own problems. We want to be seen as strong people, and as such, being more reserved about our emotions is to be expected for us to move forward in life, regardless on how we might truly feel on the inside.
The children of immigrant families have a lot of pressure put on them because their parents have given up so much to lead a better life in America. With that in mind, these younger generations don’t want to be seen as ungrateful; after all, they did not have to experience the more challenging hardships their parents had to go through. By that token, many teens and young adults feel guilty for even mentioning their mental health struggles at all. According to the results retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Asian Americans reported fewer mental health concerns than whites, but 18.9 percent of Asian American high school students reported considering suicide, verus the 15.5 percent of whites. This discrepancy is disturbing.
On top of all the stigmas regarding mental health in Asian American communities, fewer resources are available to us for mental health treatment, which can be detrimental to seeking help. An obvious example of this is the language barrier. It’s hard enough to be understood in America if English is your second language, let alone to convey complicated personal thoughts and feelings. Asians Americans also traditionally have very strong religious beliefs — in times of need, we are led to believe that we should turn to prayer. Suicide is considered sinful, so Asian Americans try their best to hide their feelings, in fear of being judged.
I have started to share my experiences with therapy and depression, and will continue to do so, to hopefully encourage other Asian Americans to seek treatment if they need it. You can seek out support through a close network of friends, trusted family members, or support groups with other Asians. While it can be scary to speak to your family about mental health, it’s important to have these discussions and push the boundaries on how we as a culture talk about mental health. When it comes to mental health, no matter your culture or background, an ethos of compassion should be universal.