Subtle Asian Mental Health Traits

In April, I led a workshop at the New York City Asian American Student Conference (NYCAASC) titled “Subtle Asian Mental Health Traits” (alternatively titled “Building Communities of Care”).

My inspiration for this workshop was the rise in popularity of “Subtle Asian Traits,” a facebook group created by Australian students to allow Asians to bond over their culture online. This group became an instant phenomenon with over one million users in the group and a plethora of subgroups like “Subtle Curry Traits,” “Subtle Asian Dating,” “Subtle Asian Cooking,” and “Subtle Asian Mental Health”. (Note: My titling of this workshop was not associated or affiliated with the “Subtle Asian Mental Health” group.)

As a user belonging to many of these groups, I was initially enamored by the strong sense of community and affinity in these groups. However, I soon came to realize that even these communities are not safe from tone policing and hateful speech when a post contains political or sensitive topics. With my experience in these groups and also in my own communities in college, I was inspired to center this workshop on Asian American mental health to encourage folks to contribute to communities of care.

In this post, I will outline some of the topics discussed at the workshop.

Asian American Mental Health

In a study by Chen et al. (2019), researchers found that racial-ethnic minority students are at a high risk of undetected mental illnesses and disorders. There are lower rates of formally diagnosed illnesses but this does not necessarily mean there are less minority students struggling with mental health issues.

When we look at Asian/Pacific Islander students specifically, they have lower rates of diagnosed psychiatric illnesses but have significantly higher rates of mental health symptoms such as suicide ideation and attempts, compared to white peers. Why might be this the case?

Let’s first take a look at what “Asian” means. The Asian American community in the United States is very diverse. The term ‘Asian American’ represents more than 28 Asian ethnic groups, each with their own distinct cultural practices, language, religious traditions, and immigration history (Lin & Cheung 1999). Between these different Asian ethnic subgroups there are differences in prevalence of mental disorders (e.g. higher post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Southeast Asian refugee groups) (Sue et al. 2012) and many health professionals are not equipped to diagnose and treat these populations due to lack of resources and information.

Known as the “model minority” group, it is expected that Asian Americans would remain resilient and immune from any struggles (including mental health disorders), despite any discrimination and adjustment issues that they may face. However, previous research has actually shown that Asian patients’ psychiatric conditions were significantly more severe and chronic compared to patients of other cultural backgrounds. This is due to the amount of cultural factors that come into play and influence the mental health of Asian Americans.

The model minority myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving. 


Barriers to Care For Asian/Americans

As previously mentioned, the Asian/American community in the US is very diverse. With diversity comes a need for diverse treatment options and care. This is something that our health system lacks and remains a barrier to care for many Asian Americans.

Culturally sensitive care is needed in order to provide individuals with the best care they can get. What might be seen as one disorder, may actually be another disorder if we take into account the different cultural factors. The health professional needs to take into account any intergenerational trauma that was passed down in addition to any acculturation and adjustment issues.

Mental health care is also greatly stigmatized against in communities. People with mental health disorders are seen as ‘crazy’ and reaching out for mental health care may risk the individual being ostracized by their family and community. There is also a great sense of community in collectivist cultures, and if an individual reaches out to an outside person for help, it may be misconstrued that the individual does not feel comfortable relying on their family and community and this may cause tension within the family unit.

There may also be more logistical barriers such as lack of financial ability to access care and lack of language services for non-English speakers.

Breaking Down the Stigma

As community members and individuals, we have the power to build communities of care where we can care for each other. We must work together to destigmatize mental health issues within our communities and peers. It may be difficult to overcome generational differences and resistance from older community members who lack understanding about what mental health issues are. However, I believe that within our communities, though it may take emotional labor and work, we can work to break down the stigma and normalize mental health care.

This can take form in many ways. For example, I hope to blog about issues to spread awareness and spark dialogue. I led this workshop at NYCAASC to spark dialogue and thoughts about the issue. Others may simply encourage peers to be honest about their responses when asked, “How are you?”. I encourage everyone to be honest with their experiences and to help break down the stigma by starting and contributing to dialogue about mental health in your circles.

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