July: Minority Mental Health Month
Now is an ideal time to talk about the mental wellness for people of color. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General published Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. The report revealed “striking disparities for minorities in mental health services,” and that racial and ethnic minorities have less access to mental health services than their white peers. It is a reality of these past several decades that minorities are less likely to receive care when they need it. When someone of color does seek professional mental health services, the report said, it is also more likely to be poor in quality. Come another 14 years after that report was published, an analysis from the American Psychological Association, (APA), revealed that there are still significant barriers to obtaining high-quality mental health services for ethnic minorities in this country, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
Why is this important?
As an Asian-American woman, I believe there is a strong and important need to address mental health issues and challenges in minority people groups with a specific passion, (because it’s my community), for Asian Americans. Suicide is the fifth leading cause of death among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, compared to the ninth cause of death for white Americans. In addition, Asian American women have the highest suicide rate among women over the age of 65, as well as the second highest among women 15 to 24. Even with all this, Asian Americans use mental health services at about a third of the rate of white Americans. Numbers can tell us a lot! In South Asian culture, in particular, mental illness is viewed as a defect with one’s character and soul, making those living with mental illness feel far too much shame to ever seek help. In Chinese culture, there literally isn’t a translation for “therapy” or “mental health” and it is mistakenly perceived as “crazy illness”. Even if South Asians and Asian Americans move past the taboo, NAMI Multicultural Mental Health Facts show that multicultural communities don’t have access to the right resources, as cultural stigmas and language barriers stand in the way.
Challenges Minorities Face
Let’s explore more into what I mean when I reference, “issues,” “stigmas,” and perceived, “challenges,” for minorities:
A Taboo Topic – Discussing mental health concerns is considered taboo in many cultures, so as a result generally people of color tend to dismiss, deny or neglect their symptoms.
Discrimination – Racial or cultural backgrounds of individuals can create the feeling of being misunderstood by others or their previous health professionals. This is especially true in one’s unique experience as a son or daughter of immigrant parents. This can also be in forms of daily microaggressions and prejudices people of color experience.
Cultural Differences – The difficulty of recognizing another culture or even balancing two or more different cultures can hinder developing a bicultural sense of self. There can be little recognition of bicultural or bilingual status.
Emotional Neglect – The thought that it may be “a burden to show my emotions,” is really common! In many households, children grow up controlling or hiding their emotions. Family environments may breed the idea that silence is a sign of strength, and that feelings aren’t likely shared. You may be expected to move forward regardless of how you’re feeling, or risk being perceived as someone who easily accepts failure. While opening up to a family member may not be an option, receiving guidance and treatment from a mental health professional is not a burden on anyone. If anything, as a therapist myself, it would be a privilege to carry that alongside someone!
Family Obligations – Strong traditional and cultural values which family obligations are based on can create fear from potentially “airing out dirty laundry” of one’s family or one’s individual issues. The specific fear is that it might hurt the whole family name and perception.
Parental Pressures – Success in academics and the thought that “I must be successful and cannot show signs of weakness” are very much tied to the stigma preventing access to mental health services.
Limited Resources – Other than these, general resources for minorities around mental health are slim. Even beside issues concerning language barriers, it is not a regular occurrence to hear about mental health and wellness in educational or public information centers.
Here’s a practical example of how these individual barriers can compound. Specifically, within the group of Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, (AAPI’s), it is shown we are less likely to reach out for help more than any other race or ethnic group. How come? This can be for many of those reasons we looked at, such as faith or religious beliefs, cultural values, language barriers, and on. AAPI’s are also mistakenly thought to experience economic stability, thus creating and further fueling the stereotype that AAPI’s are the “model minority,” which adds immense pressure on top of the nuclear family or parental pressures that are already present.
Rewriting the Narrative
These issues are just a few in the myriad that minorities may experience, which all contribute to building up stigma and barriers to mental health. It may also be even more difficult if we break cultures into layers of gender roles, sexuality and spiritual backgrounds. Many of us grew up hearing the adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Dr. Altha Stewart, who, in May 2018, became the first African-American President of the American Psychiatric Association, stated recently that “this old saying is incorrect and the truth is that negative words, can be damaging to mental health, especially for young people.”
Start a Conversation; Break the Silence
Even though stigma, (at times), appears to be unbreakable, it is essential to take the first step and start a conversation. Once the stigma is broken, more and more people can feel empowered to seek out help and tell their stories!
We need to encourage minority communities to ask for help and prioritize mental health. Eliminating stigma is critical. Like in Virginia and New York, we need legislation that requires mental health education and awareness in schools, and that even goes a step further by being tailored for specific groups, like this one for AAPI communities, and eventually reach all other communities of color. Until such legislation is passed, it’s up to us individually to break down stigma within our own circles of friends and family. If you are interested in more information or resources, feel free to contact me today! I would be honored to join in on tackling stigma, (or facing it head on), with you! Please don’t hesitate to book an appointment with me if you are considering a mental health care provider for the first time.
Written by therapist Tina Choi
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