Mental Illness and the Model Minority Myth

Discussing Mental Health in Asian American Families

By Grace Shefcik

CAPS Peer Educator Grace Shefcik shares her personal experiences with mental illness and her perspective on how to discuss issues related to mental health within the Asian American community.
The first time I spoke to my mom about mental illness, she seemed uncomfortable. I knew it was a topic she was not well versed in, but regardless of how much I tried to familiarize her, the best I could get was her support for me to go to therapy.

Through time, her perception seemed to shift. At first, her ability to succeed and live a happy life despite major difficulties made my problems appear to not hold enough merit to lead to a mental illness. I grew up in a stable home, did not have to flee the country, only had to focus on one language, and overall, I had the opportunity to devote my life to school without major barriers. What was there to be upset about? She routinely expressed this not only to me, but to my therapist and father, who eventually showed her that mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what you have been through. Pain is subjective. What I experienced is very similar to what other Asian American and 1st/2nd generational families have – the pressure and expectation of being the “Model Minority.”

Members of the model minority are expected to be smart (particularly good at math and science), wealthy, obedient, self-reliant, and most glaringly – immune to mental illness. Not only does one’s family or culture create this picture, but the media also perpetuates these ideas.  These can all be healthy things to strive for, but if the pressure of one’s family or culture becomes too much, especially when one can’t adhere to the expectations, it can take a major toll. Potentially, the negative impact can be large enough that admitting this model is not you or that you need help can be humiliating, often resulting in anger and/or denial from yourself and others.

Asian Americans are affected by mental illness at the same rate as anyone else, but the model minority picture can blanket the diversity of the group and their prevalent need for mental health services. The cultural pressure and high expectations from peers and family can lead to discomfort in accepting there may be a mental health problem. Consequently, Asian Americans are less likely to reach out for help. In actuality, they’re more likely to not graduate in 4 years or take a leave of absence for health. So how does one, as a “model minority” talk to family and/or ask for help? Here are some suggestions:

1) Talk with family / friends who may understand the same pressures as you.

Maybe a cousin around the same age also has trouble vocalizing having stress or anxiety, or you know someone who has similar pressures. Often times they can validate your experiences and being able to talk it out for the first time can be beneficial.

2) See how familiar your family is with mental illness.

Do they know what anxiety, depression, or other common mental illnesses are? That they aren’t a choice and can be disabling? Debunk any stigmas or misconceptions they have, and try your best not to get angry. There can be a huge cultural divide and misunderstanding that requires sensitivity to erase.

Tip: Make sure you talk to them at a time that is comfortable, and where no one will have to leave to go somewhere else!

3) Lead the conversation by talking about YOUR feelings and your experiences.

Whether or not you feel comfortable actually using a diagnosis or formal term is up to you. Express your concerns and how the symptoms are affecting your life, and in what ways you think they can be changed.

4) If there is denial, you  can try explaining again that you are not the only one feeling this way, and that their response or lack of support won’t let you to getting help and back to good grades (but more importantly, happiness!)

5) Have known resources that can educate your family.

Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness offer free education classes on mental illness, and even some focused for immigrants. Offer having them speak with a physician, who often can provide the same information as you – but will be considered more trustworthy to them.

6) Don’t be afraid to reach out to CAPS!

There are so many services available for you. Someone at CAPS can truly impact and help you and your specific situation.

I hope this was able to give you a head start! Even if the first conversation doesn’t go smoothly, talking about it will always make progress.

With love,