Dr. Susanna La
Asian American Mental Health
Updated: Mar 10
Do you have difficulty navigating through life as an Asian American? Do you struggle internally but externally try to appear as if you’re doing fine? Have you learned to invalidate or ignore your pain? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, please know you are not alone.
Asian American encompasses diverse lived experiences of millions of people with different ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions, values/beliefs, immigration history, trauma, and more, which all impacts mental health.
According to Mental Health America (2022), approximately 3 million Asian Americans reported having significant mental health conditions. With the anti-Asian hate (read here if interested) combined with the ongoing stress of the pandemic, this number is likely much higher. Additionally, suicide is a leading cause of death for Asian American youth ages 14-24 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019). You can read more about suicide within the Asian American community by clicking here. As data shows, there is a disproportionate amount of people suffering, yet Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to seek mental health care (APA, 2012).
Mental Health Stigma in the Asian American Community
Mental health stigma within Asian American communities makes seeking mental health services challenging. This can be due to cultural beliefs about not wanting to share one’s hardships as to not burden others. There may also be an unspoken expectation to not share personal struggles with people outside of the family as to not bring shame to the family. In addition, some may have received messages encouraging the internalization of emotions by not expressing them as to not cause issues and instead to focus on the needs of family members above our own. Additionally, for many Asian immigrant families, the primary focus is on survival (income, food, shelter), so emotions and self-reflection may be viewed as a luxury or unnecessary. These various messages can cause us to disconnect from our needs and struggles while simultaneously suffering in silence.
Within Asian cultures, there can be a misunderstanding of what it means to have a mental health condition. Depression, anxiety, and trauma affects our mood, sleep, appetite, thoughts, behaviors, and overall quality of life. This can manifest as tiredness, lack of motivation, difficulty completing tasks/focusing, intense fear, and using unhealthy coping skills. There is a huge misconception about these symptoms since Asian family members may tend to view/judge the person with these symptoms as “lazy” or “crazy” for not fulfilling roles/expectations, which only further isolates the person who is struggling and can prevent them from reaching out for much needed help. If you have internalized these messages, know there are ways to unlearn these unhelpful messages and to increase your own self-understanding.
How to Support Your Mental Health
The ability to push through struggles may seem "resilient," (e.g., The Model Minority Myth, read here if interested), but the truth is ignoring and suppressing our emotions is painful and isolating. This prevents us from truly tuning in and taking care of our own mental health needs. The following are ways to start to intentionally care for your mental health:
Practice listening to emotions by describing and naming them. You may notice emotions as sensations in your body like tension in your neck and shoulders when you're feeling anxious/stressed. This is especially important if we have been reinforced to ignore or minimize our pain. Emotions are important messengers communicating to us information about various life situations. Typically, emotions express a response and/or need within us.
Seek support from people who can listen without judgment. This can be sharing hardships with trusted friends, family, a support group, and/or a licensed mental health professional.
Reflect on your cultural values and take time to challenge or unlearn unhelpful early messages around mental health. For example, if you are considering reaching out for help but find this challenging, you may need to first work through feelings of guilt or shame associated with wanting to seek services.
Reflect on your life, including if you are living consistently with your values of who you are and who you want to be. Sometimes, the choices we make are not entirely our own, and if possible, make decisions that support your mental health.
The Asian American experience is complex and uniquely your own as no two experiences are exactly alike. Trying to navigate beliefs and values from two distinct cultures may be a lifelong journey, but you don’t have to do it alone. If you are interested in working with culturally-competent and culturally-sensitive Asian American therapists as well as living in your authenticity and finding balance in your life, you may be interested in working with us. You can reach out to us through our site.
“Give yourself permission to show up differently and release yourself from unwritten expectations, mindsets, or rules you may have picked up from your roadmap of life, and from ways of thinking that might be keeping you from living with freedom, empowerment, and connection.” - Jenny Wang, Ph.D. from Permission to Come Home
Stay tuned. The next topic is "Honoring Boundaries."
American Psychological Association. (2012). Mental Health Among Asian-Americans. https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/asian-american/article-mental-health.
Mental Health America (2022). Asian American/Pacific Islander Communities and Mental Health. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/asian-americanpacific-islander-communities-and-mental-health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Office of Minority Health. (2019, September 25). Mental and Behavioral Health - Asian Americans. https://www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=54
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.