“I heard he even had to go to therapy,” said my relative in disbelief. Growing up in an Asian family that rarely has open conversations about mental health, I’ve heard many such statements. Even the term “therapy” itself seems to scare my family members.
And it turns out my family isn’t alone. Asian Americans are three times less likely than white Americans to seek any type of mental health care services or resources. Here are some cultural factors that underlie the particularly intense stigmatization of mental health treatment in Asian American communities:
- Many collectivist Asian cultures place great value on interdependence and the family as a unit. Having help outside of the family may be seen as dishonoring your family.
- There is a general sense of shame around expressing emotion. Many Asian cultures hold the belief that expressing emotion can bring disharmony or imbalance to the larger community. This fear of burdening others can lead to shame in opening up.
- The model minority myth, which stereotypes Asian Americans as studious and successful, creates the illusion that the community doesn’t have problems. This puts pressure on Asian Americans to hide mental health struggles.
- Many Asian Americans hear about past family sacrifices for a better life in America. Knowing relatives faced “more stressful” challenges just to get by can make them feel guilty or ungrateful when seeking help.
So what can we do to minimize cultural barriers to seeking help?
Here are two ways to think about it, starting with larger changes in the mental health system, and actions we can take as individuals:
1) The mental health system needs more culturally competent professionals.
Many treatment models currently reflect a white American, middle-class demographic. Working with a professional who has the training and skills to provide culturally competent services can create a better sense of understanding and trust, allowing Asian Americans to access help more tailored to their specific circumstances.
2) Reducing stigma takes time, but small individual actions can help us get there.Know the facts and share the facts. Share your experience and uplift the voices of others. Encourage equality between physical and mental health, share resources (I love @asianmentalhealthcollective on IG!), and have these conversations within your own circles of loved ones with empathy and understanding.