Destigmatizing Mental Health in the AAPI Community

aapi mental health

It was my junior year of high school when I fell into a period of depression. The pressures of scoring high on the SAT, getting accepted to UCLA (AKA my dream college), and maintaining a 4.0 GPA got the best of me. I grew up in a predominantly white, suburban town, but my family and I were also part of a Chinese community formed from our local Chinese school that my sister and I attended. On the one hand, I had a group of friends who I didn’t have to explain to why I was studying on a Friday night or why half my weekend was spent sitting in a SAT prep class. On the other hand, I felt an added weight to perform well academically to keep up with my Chinese friends and to be able to give my parents bragging rights. My academic performance was a direct reflection of my personal achievement. 

I’ll admit, I succumbed to the “model minority” myth—the idea that all Asian Americans are smart, high-achieving, successful individuals. But unlike the many stereotypes about Asian Americans, I wasn’t a math prodigy and I didn’t have aspirations to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or CFO. OK, I did play the piano, but that was short-lived. And my parents weren’t strict and consumed with grades as the Asian-heritage parenting stereotype paints them to be. 

 

…Unlike the many stereotypes about Asian Americans, I wasn’t a math prodigy and I didn’t have aspirations to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or CFO. OK, I did play the piano, but that was short-lived.

 

I never turned to my Asian American counterparts to talk about my struggles to live up to the high expectations and standards of our culture. After all, they were also juggling academics, extracurricular activities, and the enormous pressure to “succeed,” and they seemed to be doing just fine. The fact that I was struggling was a hard pill to swallow and I was more concerned with “saving face” (read: suppressing any emotions in order to avoid shame or embarrassment in Asian cultures) than trying to get help. I remember feeling alone and like something was wrong with me. Thankfully, my mom was my advocate and took me to see my first therapist. I reluctantly went, but shame continued to rear its ugly head and I kept it a secret from my friends and other family members. 

During a time when mental health is getting the attention it deserves, there still lies the ingrained stigma for the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community, which includes a wide array of countries, ethnicities, and identities. For reference, there are over 20 million people in the U.S. who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander—that is 6.1% of the overall population. According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, we’re the least likely racial group in the U.S. to seek professional help. And amidst the heightened racism against Asian Americans, it’s now more important than ever to destigmatize mental health challenges in our community. 

I sought out Dr. Jenny Wang, psychologist, speaker, author, and founder of Asians for Mental Health, to share steps we can take to help people like my 16-year-old self feel seen and heard. Here are four ways to change the conversation around mental health, whether you’re an Asian American or a peer. 

Meet the expert
Dr. Jenny Wang
Psychologist, speaker, author, and founder of Asians for Mental Health

Embrace your emotions

Coming from Asian cultures, we’re taught that voicing our emotions is bad, so we should suppress them. Because we’re thought of as always being successful, we feel the responsibility to uphold that image and we lack emotions as part of our narrative. There is no place for stress, anxiety, or depression. 

To start to dismantle that way of thinking, Dr. Wang suggested we normalize negative emotional experiences as a natural part of human existence and allow ourselves to lean into and feel them. “Emotions are necessary, useful, and serve a function. They offer so much knowledge and wisdom when we’re able to understand them well,” she stated. 

Dr. Wang went on to say that when we make being more direct and clear about our internal experiences with each other and our community a standard practice, we can help destigmatize mental health right off the bat. She encouraged verbalizing our hardships: “I’m having a really hard day. I feel like a failure.” When we speak up and put our feelings into words, we start tearing down the expectations and stereotypes that have kept us silent. 

 

mother and daughter

Source: Ketut Subiyanto | Pexels

 

Foster dialogue about mental health services

Just like we would see a doctor for an infection (and not think twice about it), seeking mental health services—whether it be therapy, a support group, or medications—for our mental well-being should be no different. But Dr. Wang pointed out that in Asian cultures, the mere idea of mental health is obscure. “We think mental health is this distant, mysterious, or very severe type of condition,” she explained. “That person is crazy or that person is not thinking clearly. It’s labeled as something so foreign.” 

According to Dr. Wang, when we’re proactive about accessing care and support when we need them, sharing our experiences to others in our community is another means to break down the stigma and shame. And it starts at home—Dr. Wang makes it a point to tell her children when she’s going to therapy, for how long, and what it’s for. 

 

Dr. Wang makes it a point to tell her children when she’s going to therapy, for how long, and what it’s for.

 

“Think of mental health as something we do like exercise, yoga, meditation, eating, and sleeping well—strategies to help cope with everyday life more effectively,” she said. And rather than reaching out for support only when you’ve reached your limit, it should be a form of maintenance and prevention.   

 

Reframe vulnerability as a strength versus a weakness

While being vulnerable is touted as a powerful attribute in American society today, it can be seen as a sign of weakness in many Asian cultures. Saving face, and upholding respect, honor, and social standing, is a core social and cultural value that runs deep. If we admit our struggles, it can be perceived as reflecting poorly upon our family members and community. So we sweep them under the rug and keep our pain in silence to maintain the facade that we have everything under control. “The problem is that when we live that way and if we’re struggling, it isolates us and makes it so hard for us to find community and connection with people,” Dr. Wang explained. “It also cuts us off from the care and compassion that we can receive from the people we love and our community.” 

 

While being vulnerable is touted as a powerful attribute in American society today, it can be seen as a sign of weakness in many Asian cultures.

 

Instead, Dr. Wang gave the example of being vulnerable with a friend, which opens up the ability to access their support emotionally, even practically, like the simple act of sending you dinner when you feel like you’re drowning. Although being vulnerable may feel counterintuitive, you gain access to many different support systems you otherwise wouldn’t have. And being vocal about your mental health struggles means you don’t have to carry the weight of your burdens alone. “When we show up vulnerably, it gives others the permission to do the same,” Dr. Wang said. Imagine the ripple effect if we all expressed our difficulties to someone we trusted!

 

mental health

Source: RODNAE Productions | Pexels

 

Unwrap the idea of shame

With the pressure of living up to the stereotypes put on Asian Americans comes the fear of experiencing the shame that is associated with falling short and “failing,” not to mention the cost of mental well-being. We carry out the roles expected of us by our culture and society: studying hard to get into a good college to get a good job. There is no room for shame when perfection is the only option. 

Dr. Wang explained that the idea of shame inhibits our community from taking risks, being innovative and creative, and connecting with people who can challenge us and make us grow. “If I’m terrified of making mistakes, I’m not going to put myself in uncomfortable situations. I’m not going to be risky because the likelihood of failure could be much higher,” Dr. Wang said.

To combat the internalization of shame, she said it comes down to tolerating the emotional discomfort that fear, worry, and anxiety can bring up in all of us as well as the feelings of shame or guilt that arise from not fulfilling expectations. What’s more, asserting that our struggles are valid and normal and that we don’t have to fit the mold of having it all together is vital in dispelling the stigma surrounding mental health.   

 

Final thoughts

The Asian American experience is not a one-size-fits-all story. However, it is rooted in a history of war, genocide, immigration, and assimilation into American culture, and that is now affected by racism today. With the trauma of said events having never been acknowledged or processed by our elders and the collective belief that all troubles could be solved with hard work and perseverance, it’s no wonder the stigma attached to mental health in the AAPI community has persisted.  

The good news? Because the next generation has been taught the importance of mental health and is better equipped with the necessary tools earlier in their lives, Dr. Wang said they’re changing the narrative for us as a community. And by taking the steps laid out, we’re setting the stage for the shift toward seeing mental health in a positive light. 

 

Because the next generation has been taught the importance of mental health and is better equipped with the necessary tools earlier in their lives … they’re changing the narrative for us as a community.

 

As for me, I’ve come a long way from my 16-year-old self when I felt alone in my feelings and depressed. Today, I’m not afraid to speak up about my mental health to my family and friends, Asian or not. In fact, I make it a point to. And as a result, I’ve learned that sparking conversation with others leads to action and I’m strong and beautiful in sharing my struggles. It’s my hope that giving Asian Americans a voice will break down the mental health stigma and barriers to receiving care so future generations no longer have to bear the shame.

How One Mom Transformed Cultural Infertility Shame Into Power
Click to Read