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Asian american mental health: Stigma, culture, and more

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Mental health stigma can negatively impact people with mental illness, their loved ones, and caregivers. Stigmas are unfair, inaccurate ideas or beliefs that people use to negatively isolate and discriminate against others with certain traits or qualities.

Mental health stigmas exist worldwide and can impact anyone of any race or ethnicity, creating barriers to access available mental health treatment. According to Mental Health America (MHA), Asian Americans are the least likely racial group in the United States to seek mental health services.

This article discusses Asian American mental health statistics, common stigmas and why they occur, cultural influencing factors that impact different groups of people, how to combat stigmas, and how to seek help.

The Asian American population is the fastest-growing ethnic or racial grouping in the U.S., increasing 72% between 2000–2015.

In 2019, over 19 million people living in the United States identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander, representing 6.1% of the total U.S. population.

Of these, roughly 15% report having a mental illness in the past year, meaning more than 2.9 million Asian Americans experienced mental illness in 2019.

Findings from the National Latino and Asian American Study also found that 17.3% of Asian Americans will be diagnosed with a psychiatric condition at some point in their lifetime.

By some estimates, Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek treatment or help than other racial groups in the U.S. The MHA also state that they are the least likely racial group in the U.S. to seek mental health services.

The APA claim stigma may play an important role in someone’s likelihood to access care willingly. And according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental health stigmas are common in Latinx and Hispanic communities in the U.S.

While more research is necessary, mental health stigmas may exist for several reasons, such the below:

Fear of disability

A study found stigmas that associate mental illness with disability are the largest barrier to Asian Americans accessing mental healthcare.

Cultural norms and values

Shaming related to mental health is a cultural norm in some Asian American communities.

Many Asian Americans also have strong family obligations that center around traditional and cultural values. Ancient Asian philosophical traditions strongly identify someone’s self-value with their ability to care for their family and community.

These notions encourage the idea that people with mental illness, who may not live up to these stereotypes, obligations, and values, are failures, valueless, or have no identity or purpose.

These negative ideas can also discourage people from seeking treatment to avoid shaming themselves, their family, or their community.

Getting outside help may also conflict with the Asian American cultural value of interdependence, which stresses that family or community can meet all a person’s needs. This value perpetuates the idea that people should not seek professional help when relying on their family or community.

The ‘model minority’ myth

The model minority myth enforces the idea that all Asian Americans are fully-integrated, intelligent, industrious, and have overcome racial bias. This places pressure on those within this group to meet these standards or expectations.

Furthermore, it encourages people to hide their historical influences and deny the fact that their life includes frustration, let-downs, setbacks, failures, pain, and loss that everyone experiences. Media portrayals often further encourage this stereotype by presenting one-dimensional, uncomplicated, and “universal” Asian American characters.

Taboos

Talking about mental health is taboo in many Asian cultures, perpetuating the idea that mental illness is shameful and that people should keep these issues private.

Lack of mental health education

A lack of mental health awareness, coupled with negative stereotypes,may cause Asian Americans to overlook, reject, deny, or ignore mental health symptoms.

They may also be more likely to assume mental illness is related to poor parenting or a genetic flaw passed down from parents. This can discourage people with mental illness, or their families, from seeking outside help to avoid being labeled as defective or damaged.

Religious or spiritual beliefs

Several prevalent religions in Asian American countries promote the idea that mental illness:

  • is a sin or divine punishment
  • represents disrupted energy flow or an internal imbalance
  • stems from a lack of faith
  • can be cured with enough faith, prayer, or good behavior

Lack of culturally appropriate resources

Many healthcare professionals do not have the specialist training to accommodate or address different cultural needs, experiences, and values.

Some estimates claim Asian Americans also have the most trouble accessing mental healthcare due to language barriers of all ethnic and racial groups living in the U.S.

Because fewer Asian Americans seek mental healthcare than other groups, those who do may find themselves in settings without people of their race or ethnicity to whom they can relate. These factors may make it seem like mental healthcare services are not meant to be used by Asian Americans.

Learn more about mental health stigma here.

Various mental health stigmas impact certain groups of Asian Americans differently depending on certain cultural factors.

Factors influencing stigmas in children include:

  • being pressured to excel in academic life and become a highly skilled professional regardless of the emotional, social, or physical toll
  • being encouraged to hide emotions to avoid being seen as “too emotional” or a complainer
  • the idea that previous generations suffered worse circumstances or trauma, so it is shameful for children or young adults to share their struggles knowing that others survived “much more”
  • the idea among older adults that mental illness does not exist or impacts their community
  • the idea that children and young adults should be thankful or grateful because of the sacrifices made for them regardless of their experiences

A study by the National Asian Women’s Health Organization also identified the following attitudes or beliefs impacting Asian American women:

  • conflicting cultural values causing a reduced sense of control over life decisions
  • feeling responsible or obliged, yet unable to meet unrealistic, biased family and societal standards
  • fear of stigma and stigmatization of their family
  • witnessing mental illness, such as depression in family members, but being encouraged to stay silent

Some factors surrounding traditional masculine gender roles and obligations may also influence Asian American males more heavily than other groups, such as:

  • intense shame and guilt for failing to be the “head” of the family and care for family members
  • the idea that Asian American men are less interested in their emotional life
  • fear of being labeled as easily defeated or willing to accept failure
  • the idea men should not “show their cards” or express their emotions with others
  • the need to “save face” by avoiding discussing issues that may bring humiliation, shame, or disgrace

The best way to combat stigmas is to become educated about mental health facts and engage positively with people who experience mental illness.

Other ways to combat stigmas include:

  • talking openly with family, friends, or using social media
  • promoting the idea that physical and mental illness are equal
  • avoiding the use of language that may be negative or discriminating
  • telling the media when they are promoting stigmatizing content or ideas
  • showing compassion and empathy for people with mental illness
  • seeking treatment and being open and honest with others about it
  • trying to avoid self-stigmatization and embracing empowerment over shame
  • committing to being StigmaFree

When choosing a healthcare provider, make sure they are culturally competent and fluent in the relevant language. Ask if a provider has:

  • treated many Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders
  • specialized training in how to treat Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders
  • knowledge of how cultural backgrounds may influence communication about treatment
  • considered how aspects of cultural identity may affect treatment

For more tips on how to choose an appropriate mental healthcare provider, click here.

Visit Mental Health America or The National Alliance on Mental Illness for a list of resources and organizations dedicated to improving mental healthcare for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Negative mental health stigmas may impact Asian Americans more than other racial or ethnic groups living in the U.S., likely due to negative stigmas.

Education is the best way to combat mental health stigmas. People with mental illness may also benefit from being treated by a culturally competent healthcare professional.

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