Gender & Identity, Life

I’m mentally ill, but I’m not white

At my worst, I am bedrock hidden under the layers of my sheets. An odorous thing inside me eats and eats, and my mind begs for release from corporeality.

I spent 5th to 8th grade in this haze of desolation punctuated by those days, weeks, or months that seemed like bliss compared to the hell I lived in.

I could probably count the number of times I asked my, at that time, often absent mom to take me to a therapist. She’d wave me away and tell me to ask my sister, who attempted suicide at my age and saw a therapist out of high school to undo the years of neglect that came with being my mom’s first child.

I don’t know if I was even ready to heal at that point.

Not the way that she did, by contextualizing her childhood and learning about healthy eating/sleeping/living habits that my mom never knew enough about to teach us.

Something in me was still languishing in that numb rage. And, with no tangible outlet, I was a ticking time bomb that stumbled through the halls of my new high school with a boy trailing behind me with lewd thoughts dropping from his lips like fruit.

Day by day.

That’s what my life became after my assault in freshman year.

It became my mom telling me to get my shit together, and it became my first visit to a therapist. It took my GPA plummeting to an astounding 0.0 and ditching classes in school bathrooms every day for my mom to realize that mental illness was a very real thing. And, in the end, it was the school and me who conspired to get me therapy and not my mom.

My experience isn’t unusual, and it’s the depressed high school student is a pretty common narrative nowadays. In time, I came to understand that in a lot of non-white communities, having a mental illness is a “white people problem.”

Because privileged white people can afford to be neurodivergent.

While I was lucky to be the second child of a mostly-assimilated and upper-middle-class family, the mental illness stigma is a real problem within our communities.

It was only last year that I found out about performance artist Kristina Wong, most noted for her talk/performance on the mental illness stigma in Asian American communities called “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She opened up a train of thought that I hadn’t considered before and presented me with a statistic from 2004 that reported Asian American women as having the highest suicide rates among any sex or race out there.

“…you’re wondering how is Kristina Wong going to portray each and every depressed, mentally ill, suicidal, Asian-American women and do so positively. In a way that does not rely on negative stereotypes and empowers us and represents us in a positive way.”

The facts look something like this:

  1. Many Asian Americans experienced severe trauma before emigrating to the US, or during the process of fleeing their homes.
  2. Social anxiety, social phobias, depression and trauma-related disorders occur at high rates within the Asian American community.
  3. Young Asian Americans have the highest suicide rate out of all racial and ethnic groups in the country. Adult suicide rates for the Asian American population are high as well.

The result, naturally, should be that we see higher incidents of Asian Americans seeking help, right? Wrong. It’s hard to overcome the mental illness stigma even removed from our specific cultures, but it’s even harder when discussing our emotional states is frowned upon–especially if they’re negative. It’s a pretty typical narrative to paint the typical immigrant Asian (from SE to East) immigrant family as reserved and conservative, and it does fall back on some degree of truth.

And besides, how often was I told growing up that my actions reflected the character of my parents?

Like, a thousand.

The fact that I couldn’t pull through my “supposed depression” reflected negatively on my character, and therefore I had shamed my parents in a social perspective.

The American Psychological Association lists the following reasons for increased stigma in our communities:

  1. Parental pressure to succeed in academics
  2. Discussing mental health concerns is considered taboo in many Asian cultures and as a result, Asian Americans tend to dismiss, deny or neglect their symptoms
  3. Pressure to live up to the “model minority” stereotype (a view that inaccurately portrays Asian Americans as successfully integrating into mainstream culture and having overcome the challenges of racial bias)
  4. Family obligations based on strong traditional and cultural values
  5. Discrimination due to racial or cultural background
  6. Difficulty in balancing two different cultures and developing a bi-cultural sense of self

I couldn’t have said it any better. I could never understand my mom’s reluctance to admit that something may be wrong with me, but at least I can understand it. Especially for her, as an Asian woman, she’s lived a life of silent suffering. She’s lived a life where your value lies in how much you can get pull yourself together in hard times, and then do even better than baseline. And, in the end, that’s the only life she knows.

Moving away from second-generation immigrants who have a certain degree of familiarity with assimilation, I want to focus on the barriers that face the Asian community when it comes to accessing mental help.

Oftentimes these barriers are specific to older members of our society that have the most they need to unravel, especially with the generational trauma that can often affect a lot of Asian cultures.

Before I start, a lot of Asian Americans do not have access to healthcare in America.

This is a fact that reinstates itself throughout the constant narrative of poverty in our country. The number one specific barrier is, of course, language. Following that, culture comes into play again, not only through older Asian community members distancing themselves from any admittance of mental illness but through the professionals they might end up seeing.

Quoting from a page on the National Alliance on Mental Illness,”Culture is a concept not limited to patients…clinicians view symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments in ways that sometimes diverge from their clients’ views, especially when the cultural backgrounds of the consumer and provider are dissimilar. This divergence of viewpoints can create barriers to effective care … Clinicians and service systems, naturally immersed in their own cultures, have been ill-equipped to meet the needs of patients from different backgrounds and, in some cases, have displayed bias in the delivery of care.”

Sadly, Institute of Medicine’s report Unequal Treatment concluded that “although myriad sources contribute to these disparities, some evidence suggests that bias, prejudice, and stereotyping on the part of health care providers may contribute to differences in care.”

Mental health providers ought to receive training to accommodate these differences in culture or at least work towards bridging the gap if they know they’re going to be receiving an Asian patient.

In my case, my mother was violently against all medicine.

I was not allowed to be tested for a proper diagnosis, and I was not allowed to even think about taking medicine.

Looking back, I’m glad for her choice but at the time what I wanted was relief from the daily breakdowns.

Like I’ve said time and time again, there’s a certain narrative in Asian communities that revolve around pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and working through anything. This cultural ideology definitely gets in the way Asian Americans seeking mental help and may aid in clouding judgment about what they want to get out of what help they do get.

As Kristina Wong says, “Chinese people didn’t see therapists. Spend $100 to tell a stranger your problems? Are you crazy? Why, yes, maybe I am. But I don’t know because my mom won’t give me the money to see a shrink. Western psychology and ‘seeing a therapist’ – especially one that you have to pay megabucks by the hour to tell your secrets to – is still a completely foreign concept to people of my parents’ generation who believed seeing a therapist would prevent you from getting a job. And mind you, my parents were born in America.”

This is suffering, not assimilation.