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Asian American Mental Health: Heritage and Roots

“My parents were tasked with the job of survival, and I with self-actualization. The immigrant generational gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.” I came across this tweet written by the user Bo Ren a few years ago and it stuck with me since. It was the mentality I had that was put into words. As an Asian American immigrant myself, I’ve felt the pressure to succeed due to the sacrifices my parents have made to provide me the opportunities they never had, and sacrificing my mental health in the process. Numerous Asian American university students share this mindset. The topic of mental health has been overlooked and brushed off within the Asian American community. Plenty of factors, both internal and external, allow this cycle to continue. Megan GoMegan Go

Due to culture, generational trauma, and expectations in relation to mental health, it is difficult for Asian Americans to reach out for help even when needed. Mental health tends to be a taboo topic within the community. Past generations have experienced traumatic historical events such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, The EDSA Revolution, The Vietnam War, surviving poverty, and on top of that, migrating to a new country. Asian parents tend to emphasize the gravity of what they’ve been through, or their children are aware of the sacrifices that they made. Comparing the struggles our parents went through to what our generation faces today minimizes and invalidates what our generation goes through. Our culture teaches us to stay silent and work through our battles of our own. “Our parents left behind their lives and family by moving to a continent halfway across the world. They’ve been through so much so in comparison to them, there’s nothing for me to complain about,” is what we tell ourselves as we try to brush off our struggles. Asian families have the stereotype of brushing off any type of illness, trying to cure themselves on their own instead of seeing a doctor, so mental health is on the bottom of the list. In many cases, reaching out for help, or even just the mere fact that they struggle, are seen as a sign of weakness to seek help, especially in the area of mental health. According to a study conducted by Shadid, Weiss, Stoner, and Dewsbery, Asian Americans have core values that consist of collectivism (putting others needs over one’s self), emotional self-control (the ability to control emotions), humility, family recognition through achievement (academically, and career-wise) and conformity to norms. Studies show that those individuals who adhere to these values are more likely to veer away from seeking help for their mental health.

On top of the stigma, general access to mental health on campus has been a barrier most students face. Several counseling services on campus already tend to be severely understaffed, resulting in limited availability, along with the existing staff not being culturally competent to support the Asian student population. Dr. Gayle Iwamasa emphasizes the increased need for culturally competent mental health services, since specific cultural factors play a huge role in the treatment of these mental disorders that are affected by cultural, generational and acculturation levels. As a minority, Asian students experience a separate set of stressors from cultural expectations to the external discriminations, especially recently with the rise of hate crimes due to the pandemic. Culturally competent counselors are much-needed, as there are different coping mechanisms involved with specific racial and ethnic backgrounds. It should be the responsibility of higher education institutes to train these counselors to have that background in order to properly serve the student population. University cultural centers should be utilized, and create programs that bring awareness and have mental health conversations with families, not only when students are accepted into the university, but throughout their undergraduate years. The University of Connecticut (UConn) is moving in that direction. They recently hired Dr. Ron McLean as the Director of Health Equity & Access to Care (HEAC). UConn’s student health and wellness department now includes a HEAC office whose purpose is to promote student engagement, focusing on marginalized populations including the Asian demographic. With this, the university aims to assist students in achieving their wellness and mental health goals, and to eradicate barriers that are linked to their identities.

Mental health issues should no longer be placed on the backburner. All struggles are valid, no matter what generational differences there are. Having conversations and normalizing mental health care within families can help reduce the stigma. Increasing funding and access to mental health resources is a necessary next step, with a focus on hiring better trained staff in a culturally contemptuous background. Every student deserves proper access to mental health resources. When we start treating mental health like a necessity and not a luxury, it opens the door to better access for everyone.

Megan Go is a graduate student studying Higher Education and Student Affairs at the University of Connecticut.       

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