Saving Face: Mental Health in the Asian American Community


Imagine growing up, knowing what you were always meant to become. From the age of 3, you and your parents decided you would become an engineer. You, and most of your friends, were on the straight and narrow path to achieving that goal when, suddenly, you hit a speed bump. After a semester studying abroad in Paris, you fall in love with something other than engineering and think that maybe it’s time to make a change in your life. If this sounds like the all too familiar story of a young Asian American, you’re correct. Many young people internalize others’ expectations for themselves and spend the majority of their time fulfilling other people’s dreams, to the neglect of their own.

Take Kim, for example. She’s a second-year student at the University of Southern California (USC), who wishes to remain anonymous so as not to draw attention to herself. “I felt unmoored,” she says. “Of course, I went to class, but I never focused. I became obsessed with what other people were doing with their lives because I didn’t know what to do with mine. At one point, I cried every day and felt like I forgot how to be alive. I didn’t want to be with other people, I stopped eating and couldn’t sleep, but still, I did not think I was depressed.”

Mental health is such a delicate topic in the Asian American community that most students feel they cannot broach these topics with their friends or family members.

“A lot of people, students especially, can relate to the pressure to excel, to never give up or falter,” says Jonathan Wang, interim director of the USC’s Asian Pacific American Student Services department. While ambition is by no means a bad thing, a single-minded focus on success can lead to an unhealthy mental state.

This unwavering pressure to succeed is evident in the stereotype of the Asian American ‘whiz kid’ or overachiever. These stereotypes and expectations act as a distorted mirror — emphasizing certain characteristics and warping the truth. These cultural stereotypes and perceptions play into the ‘model minority myth.’ The model minority myth is the dangerous assumption that Asian Americans are more successful than the majority of the population and require fewer social resources, such as income assistance or tutoring, that other groups may receive.

“This internalized ‘model minority’ myth creates a vicious cycle,” Wang says. “No one wants to address how they’re feeling until they reach a breaking point.”

But the reluctance to ask for help or talk about emotions may also stem from a desire to ‘save face’ and project an outward image of success and perfection. According to Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, a reluctance to show emotion may come from Confucian philosophies, which discourage public displays of emotion in favor of social harmony. For this reason, many Asian Americans somaticize their feelings. For example, physical complaints like fatigue and migraines may actually be symptoms of anxiety or depression.

“One possible explanation may be how we are taught to respond to pain; suffering isn’t seen as something to be shared, but rather to be internalized and dealt with privately,” recent USC grad Lorna Chiu says via email. “Because of this mentality, mental illnesses aren’t seen as legitimate problems that must be treated, so people who are in trouble or have loved ones that are suffering from internal issues don’t get the help that they need until it may be too severe to solve.”

Instead of considering mental health as a taboo subject, clinical psychologist Dr. Yoey Cheng offers this analogy via phone: “Sometimes you catch a cold, and, if you get enough rest and eat healthier, you can bounce back. But if you don’t attend to it, you get worse and may need to see a doctor. This is the same way with mental health.” Taking a preventative approach and periodically assessing emotions is another way to check-in on your mental health.

According to Asian American Suicide Prevention & Education, Asian Americans are about half as likely to talk about feelings of depression to friends or relatives and less than one-fourth as likely to tell their doctor about their feelings. The best way to start a conversation is to offer support and come from a place of caring. Dr. Cheng adds that friends and family should know that they are not alone in offering support and should not be afraid to reach out to professional resources when needed. She feels that education is key to destigmatizing mental health and encouraging people to seek help.

“A conversation can create a lot of change.” Wang says. “We need to build a shared space because sharing builds a common understanding. People’s stories can resonate with others, even if they don’t feel comfortable speak up.”

It’s time to start talking.

If you or someone you know wants more information on mental health, visit the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association.

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