Dealing with Mental Health as an Asian-American

On #saltycollective, Stacey Lu talks about dealing with mental health as an Asian-American.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Overall, at least among my social circles, both IRL (“in real life”) and virtually, mental health has been discussed in the open and pretty much been de-stigmatized. However, my circles are pretty small in the grand scheme of things, and I know from personal experience that mental health can still be a taboo subject among Asian and Asian-hyphenated (Asian-American, Asian-Canadian, etc.) communities. 

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Growing up in an immigrant Chinese-American household, my parents never talked about mental health, or even acknowledged that it was a thing. It was through American TV and movies that I first learned the words, “shrink” and “psychiatrist”. I was made to believe that people who went to see these types of doctors were “crazy”, and that “normal” people don’t need them. And moreover, I’m sure many Asians, and other POC (people of color) can relate as well, that sharing our emotions or being “overly emotional” was frowned upon. Crying was met with more scolding and seen as a sign of weakness, and as a girl who wears all her emotions on her face, I was told to wipe off my moody face and smile more, even if that’s not what I felt on the inside. 

Years of this conditioning and non-communication in my family led to my inability to express my emotions and inner turmoil in an effective and healthy way. Not only was I ill-equipped to talk about it, but I was also unable to understand what I was feeling, and why I was the way I was. When my depression manifested full force while I was away at college, I was so confused and what’s worse is that I felt guilty for feeling, which just thrust me down further. I shut myself away in my dorm room, stopped going to my classes, and was so lethargic that I would sleep for most of the day. I was unresponsive to my friends, and eventually I isolated myself. 

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At the time, I did not know that what I was experiencing were signs and symptoms of depression. All I knew was that it took all my energy to even get out of bed, but I didn’t know why. My self-narrative was telling me that I was lazy and unworthy of being at such a prestigious university, that I did not deserve this life that was given to me. As the spiraling of guilt and self-loathing continued, my grades started dropping, my friends started disappearing and my self-esteem became non-existent.

My roommate, also an Asian-American, at the time was going through tribulations of her own and mentioned to me one day that she had started going to therapy sessions provided by our school. I did not even know that we had access to the 12 free sessions of psychology counseling. My first reaction was shock: I was shocked that she was seeking therapy, because she didn’t seem crazy to me, just a girl going through a break-up from a toxic relationship. To me, that didn’t warrant seeing a “shrink” for. But I tried to keep an open mind and asked her questions about it and whether it had helped her. Having that conversation with her made me think that maybe, just maybe, therapy isn’t so bad after all. 

That semester, I used up all of my 12 sessions, and started doing my homework again, even joined student government! I got back in touch with my friends and signed up for study abroad as well. I still wasn’t 100%, but at least I was able to understand what I was going through and had someone to talk about it with. College was definitely not the last time my depression surfaced, but I at least through those sessions with my therapist I had the tools to help myself through dark times, and most importantly it opened my eyes to how important and okay it is to seek help.

With this being said, once I was home, my therapy sessions and my glaringly obvious depression symptoms were not brought up in conversation. I knew I would be reprimanded for my low grades and even hid the fact that I was on academic probation because I had failed a class for lack of attendance. I dipped my toe, by mentioning off-handedly that I had been seeing a psychiatrist at school, and was met with sheer panic in my parents’ eyes. I immediately told them that everything was okay and that it’s just temporary, emphasizing that I’m NOT “crazy”. But that put a block in the line of communication with my family regarding my mental health. 

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As years went on, and I became better informed about mental health, both personally and as a whole, things began to click for me. I began to see patterns of behavior in people around me, and linking them to various mental health disorders. I became more open in conversations about my history and experience with depression. I soon realized that it was way more common than I thought previously. Even in my parents I saw signs of untreated anxiety and depression. 

But what could I do? At least with my peers and myself, I could suggest reading self-help books, online resources, and seeking professional help. When it came to my parents, and older family members, what resources are available to them, if they even could admit to having mental health disorders and choose to seek help. The stigma against talking about mental health and seeking help for it is already a high hurdle to jump over, but then add on language barriers, cultural differences, and lack of awareness of resources, made it seem impossible. 

In a VICE article, Valerie Jackson, clinical psychologist at UCSF said, “Asian Americans are much more likely to seek help [for behavioral health] through a medical provider,” Jackson says. “They’ll say something is wrong medically, like ‘my heart is racing’ or ‘my stomach hurts’ or ‘I feel shaky.’ They’re more likely to go to a cardiologist when in fact they have anxiety. They’re more likely to say they’re feeling symptoms in their body than say, ‘I feel depressed.’”

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It’s hard and steep, but this is a hill we must climb, because it is dangerous if we continue to stay silent about mental health issues and allow others in our community to remain in the dark. We must start those uncomfortable conversations with our families to move forward. Start safe spaces and judgement-free zones for friends and your circles to share stories and experiences. Urge companies to provide free or supplemented mental health help for employees, if possible. End the stigma against mental health and seeking professional help. 

There has been, unfortunately, a lack of cultural competence in mental health care as well. But I believe that with time, increased awareness, and more Asian-hyphenated seeking mental health treatment, this will also change. On the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) website, they suggest, “When meeting with your provider, ask questions to get a sense of their level of cultural sensitivity, such as whether they have treated other Asian-Americans, received training in cultural competence, and how they plan to take your beliefs and practices into account when suggesting treatment.”

For more examples of questions to ask when finding the right therapist, click here

What has your experience been like with mental health and sharing it with your family and loved ones?

Photos by Wyatt Sing (@wyatt.sing)

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