Researchers estimate that 25% to 50% of American adults develop at least one mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Yet Asian Americans are the least likely to use mental health services when compared with other ethnic populations. This is despite the fact that Asian Americans do not differ from the general population in the prevalence of mental illness.
Why is this so?
First, despite the best efforts of healthcare professionals and pharmaceutical companies to provide accurate information about various forms of mental illnesses, the stigma attached to these ailments are still strong. The chilling news we hear of another mass shooting and the inevitable frenzied media reports on the perpetrator’s psychiatric problems have created for the public a strong association between “mental illness” and “violence.” Even though we may know of someone who has depression, the memory of a severely depressed mother drowning her children in their bathtub may still strike fear in us: what if he/she is also dangerous?
The result of this stigma? Instead of offering support for the mentally ill, we shun them; instead of seeking support when we ourselves become afflicted, we isolate ourselves and suffer in shame.
This is especially true for Asian Americans, who have long been held up as the “model minority.” We are portrayed as high achievers in school and at work, go-getters who are at the same time quiet, unassuming, uncomplaining. As a result of such expectations and work ethic, we tend not to talk about our emotional problems for fear of bringing shame to our family or otherwise inviting unwanted attention to ourselves.
Another reason Asian Americans do not always seek help when we need to is that we may not always recognize the symptoms. Depression may manifest as insomnia, body pains, and loss of appetite, even in the absence of feelings of sadness. Psychosis may be interpreted as spiritual possession. Among Asian Americans who migrated to this country, many of us do not speak English and have no access to the services we need when we want help. For some of us, a loss of our social support and community leads to depression, trauma, and adjustment issues; yet this very lack of social connections pose barriers to our getting help. We rely on our families for support, seeking mental health treatment only when problems are serious and have exceeded what our families can cope with. This puts even more stress on our families, as such situations often call for psychiatric medications or hospitalization.
The result of the stigma around mental illness is that, instead of seeking help when we are afflicted, we isolate ourselves and suffer in shame.
Do you know of someone who is struggling with emotional difficulties or other mental health issues? How can you talk to them about their condition and encourage them to get help? In my next article, I will offer some suggestions.