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Mental Health Stigma in Asian Communities

When it comes to mental health issues, Asian Americans are often silent. Asian Americans may feel like there’s an inescapable storm cloud of shame that lurks over the concept of mental illness, which implies weakness or worst. With this being said, Asian Americans may not necessarily openly discuss their emotions in the medical office setting. The mental health of Asian Americans are difficult to determine because they express somatic symptoms of distress rather than mental symptoms. Asian teachings/traditions discourage open displays of emotion because they want to avoid the exposure of personal weakness and maintain social harmony.

According to the National Latino and Asian American Study, Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white Americans. Asian Americans feel like they cannot reach out, therefore there’s an underlying fear among the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community that getting mental health treatment means you’re crazy. Furthermore, seeking out outside the immediate family causes conflicts with their cultural value of interdependence.

Some Asian Americans are less likely to utilize mental health services out of fear of stigma. If you admit you need help for your mental health, parents and other family members might experience fear or shame. They may assume that your condition is a result of their poor parenting.

Common sources of stress that affect Asian American’s overall mental health

  • Family obligations based on strong traditional and cultural values
  • Difficulty in balancing two different cultures and developing and bicultural sense of self
  • Parental pressure to success in academics
  • Pressures to live up to the “model minority” stereotype
  • Discrimination due to racal or cultural background
  • Discussing mental health issues is considered taboo in many Asian cultures and as a result Asian Americans tend to dismiss, neglect or deny their symptoms.

Studies have shown that Asian Americans who seek mental health services are more severely ill than white Americans who use the same service. This means that Asian Americans are more reluctant to seek mental health services until their condition is unmanageable. Their families also discourage them from seeking these services because they do not want to look bad to other Asians in the community.

In order for us to show the Asian American community mental health is important, we need to destroy these incorrect beliefs:

  • “I must be successful and cannot show signs of weakness.”
  • “It’s a burden to share my emotions.”
  • “I’m ungrateful for all I have.”
  • “It’s disrespectful for my spiritual beliefs.”
  • “I don’t know how to talk about mental health with my relatives.”
  • “I’ve tried therapy before, and I didn’t find it helpful.”

It’s also important to break the barrier by:

  • Have pamphlets written in various Asian languages explaing the types of mental illness
  • Ask the patient if something is bothering/worrying/stressing them
  • Discuss all mental health issues privately due to them not wanting to express having a mental illness to their family or friend with them
  • Explain to them that mental illness is not seen as showing weakness
  • Have a translator available if they are unable to communicate with the healthcare provider
  • Explain various treatment methods for each illness so that they do not have to be cautious of Western medical methods

The mental health stigma in Asian communities is heightened due to high emphasis on family honor, purity; mental illness is shameful, untreatable, and a weakness. Many also believe that admission of mental illness results in negative social and economical impacts on suffering and their family and that those with mental health disorders are dangerous, unpredictable, and should be avoided, as if having a mental illness is a choice.

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