August 3, 2018

Breaking Mental Health Stigmas Among Asian Americans

Identity Development

Growing up I remember the gossip within the Korean church community about people that would go to mental health therapy. It seemed to be strictly reserved for those that are “severely depressed” or “crazy”. Being Asian-American myself, my goal is to provide context around the cultural, spiritual, and generational differences found within my culture. It is in this effort to break down sensitivities and encourage the sharing of stories that I hope to help create a sense of shared-experience or understanding for anyone feeling isolated within their mental health.

Before Jumping In

First thing first! We are going to recognize several barriers and negative stigmas surrounding mental health so that we can look at what is needed for this next generation of Asian-Americans to consider pursuing the care that they need. I would like to note that these are not exclusive to only Asian-American communities, and can influence other racial or ethnic groups within minorities.

Cultural Differences & Shared Shame

“Why do I need to go talk to a random stranger?” “Shouldn’t my elders and parents know what’s best for me?” Although Asian-American culture has influence from Individualistic cultures like the U.S., there is still a prevailing sense of community interdependence. There is hesitancy before an approach to outside people for help with personal matters. Actively seeking professional help can be a form of admittance that something is wrong with me and my family. Asian-American culture is rooted in shame-based culture as well. What I mean is that problems are usually contained in the confines of the family unit. If, for example, people found out that someone they know is going through mental health therapy, their whole family is shamed along with that individual.

“If you admit you need help for your mental health, parents and other family members might experience fear and shame. They may assume that your condition is a result of their poor parenting or a hereditary flaw, and that you’re broken because of them.” – Ryann Tanap from National Alliance of Mental Illness

Spiritual Beliefs: “We’re Fine.”

According to a nationwide survey in 2012 by the Pew Research Center, Christians are the largest religious group among U.S. Asian adults at 42%, and 31% have another religious affiliation (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc). Not all religious communities frown upon mental health therapy, but this spiritual dynamic can either be a gateway or barrier to seeking much-needed aid. Since we are addressing barriers, here is what that would look like. Even the mention of seeking professional help in a church could be taken as a sign of weakness because it may be assumed you are not dependant enough on your faith. People experiencing mental health symptoms could be afraid of telling others in fear of judgment, so instead they will try to deal with it on their own. It can be a source of shame, because either you were not strong enough to push through your problems, or did not pray and depend on God enough. The religious dynamic may add to the shame by reinforcing an idea that the person had some unrepentant sin that they were being punished for. Instead of finding support from the community, one might hide themself away, or try to ‘save face’ until they were feeling better to re-enter back into the community. Sadly, this story is not a rare occurrence.

The Generational Gap

Many Asian-American millennials were raised under immigrant parents that did not have a framework for discussing mental health the way we do today. So, it comes upon outside sources to teach the Asian-American community about mental health conditions and that it may take more than merely toughing it out. Millennials may feel that their immigrant parents went through more difficulties to make it in the U.S., so they see their mental health struggles as minuscule to what their parents faced. It is a classic example of comparison which diminishes one’s present reality.

Mental Health Understanding

Lastly, the terms Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and many others in the DSM-V used for diagnosis are developed from a Western medicine perspective. Within Asian cultures, the conceptualization of mental illnesses were historically different, also relating to the generation gap. Thus, many Asian parents and elders approach mental health from a completely different worldview. This creates questions like “What even is psychotherapy?” “What does this process look like?” “Why is it helpful for these problems?” “Why should we pay so much for something that you should be able to get over on your own?”

While there are many negative stigmas to debunk between clinical and layman language, we are seeing the beginning of the much-needed education to address these questions, which needs to be continually made more readily available to this community.

Continuing to Learn & Share

Thankfully, there have been more efforts on many different levels of society to increase awareness of mental health among the Asian-American community and reduce the stigma of seeking out professional help. These are all important steps to reducing the taboo sense surrounding mental health, and hopefully over time help the Asian-American community can more easily find healing and wholeness! It is a passion of mine to invite those around me who may have never considered a therapist because all of these issues created a wall between their hurt and the path to healing.

If you are carrying your problems alone or struggling with the privacy and shame that’s commonplace as an Asian-American, please give me a call. I’d happily walk alongside anyone who is hesitant or even doesn’t know who to reach out to or how. Please consider booking an appointment with me when you’re ready.

Written by therapist Daniel Pak

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