Mental Health in the Asian American Community | November Editor’s Choice

By Aparna Alankar | Senior Editor

Illustration by: Sushant Thomas | Creative Staffer

In her 2012 article, “The Importance of Mental Health Treatment for College Students,” student-writer Pauline Woo discusses the vulnerability of college students to mental illness and the importance of access to quality mental health resources in universities. Woo takes readers through the statistics regarding college students’ mental health— “a study published in General Psychiatry reveals that ‘almost half of college-aged individuals had a psychiatric disorder in [2008]’”—and then moves on to highlight specific measures taken by universities including Cornell University and New York University (NYU) in response to rising incidence of severe depression and suicide among college students. 1 Similar efforts made by universities are less common than they should be, Woo says, because there is “a lack of emphasis placed on the connection between… mental health and overall college communities.”

Woo cites the heavy stigmatization of mental health as one cause of the lack of emphasis. The Mayo Clinic defines stigma as “when someone views you in a negative way because you have a… personal trait that’s thought to be… a disadvantage”. 2 Individuals with mental illness are often described as lazy, weak, or as “just having a bad day.” Stigma can then lead to discrimination, and as one of its most devastating consequences, act as an obstacle to proper treatment. Stigma is a hallmark of both the general public and of the medical community. A study published in The Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics in 2011 examined mental health stigma as it appeared in society, individuals, and the social work profession—here, stigma manifested itself most often in the attitudes health professionals (and those in-training) had towards patients struggling with mental illnesses that acted as barriers to treatment engagement. 3 For example, pharmacy students were less willing to provide schizophrenic patients with medications counseling.

The stigmatization of mental health is especially prevalent in the Asian American community. The mental health of Asian Americans is largely overlooked by the rest of America. This mentality partly stems from the portrayal of Asian Americans in the media as “whiz kids,” “overachievers,” and “perfectionists.” Asian Americans are typecast as the “model minority,” leading to the perception that they are invincible. This stereotype has harmful effects on Asian American students in particular, increasing the stress and pressure they feel to live up to the high standards mandated for them since birth, and ultimately leading to development of the mental illnesses Woo discussed in her article. Recent studies have shown that “Asian Americans have a 17.30 percent overall lifetime rate of any psychiatric disorder”. 4 In a sample of Asian American high school students, 18.9% had considered suicide (compared to 15.5% of Whites), 10.9% had attempted suicide (compared to 6.2% of Whites), and Asian American females of ages 15-24 were 30% more likely to die by suicide than White females. 5 Despite these significant problems, one study showed that only 8.6% of Asian Americans reached out for access to mental health services (versus almost 18% of the general population across the country). 4 The reluctance to seek treatment can be ascribed to the stigma surrounding mental health that is not only present in the surrounding society but also within the Asian American culture itself. Discussing mental health concerns is considered taboo in many Asian cultures, resulting in many Asian Americans dismissing, denying, or neglecting their symptoms—Asian American students in particular may feel the pressure to live up to the “model minority” stereotype and end up neglecting their mental health in the process. In the occasions where Asian Americans do seek help, the tendency is to go to personal networks, including friends, family, and members of a religious community, instead of seeking professional help. 4-7

Woo concludes her article with suggestions as to how a university might continue to improve the mental health resources that may already be present on campus. She proposes the creation of support systems on campus that may then encourage students experiencing problems with mental health to seek out more professional help. These systems should be created with the idea of common experience in mind, Woo says, whether that be by areas of study or personal interests. In relation to addressing problems with Asian American mental health, the creation of support systems focusing specifically on raising awareness of the scope of the problem within the community will help tremendously to reduce associated stigma. At NYU, work is already underway to provide Asian American students with more information and better resources regarding mental health. The NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health is conducting research focusing on mental health problems affecting the Asian American community. The Asian/ Pacific/ American Institute at NYU regularly hosts events to create space for the safe discussion of mental illness and the exploration of mental health and wellness from Asian American perspectives.

1. Blanco C., et al. (2008). Mental health of college students and their non-college-attending peers: results from the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 65(12):1429-37.
2. “Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness.” Mayo Clinic. May 24, 2017.
3. Zivin, K., et al. (2009). Persistence of mental health problems and needs in a college student population. J Affect Disord, 117(3):180-5.
4. “Mental Health Among Asian-Americans.” American Psychological Association. 2017.
5. “Asian American/Pacific Islander Communities and Mental Health.” Mental Health America. 2017.
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
7. National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association. National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association.

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