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Why Discussing Mental Health is Taboo in Many Asian Households

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

It’s 2 am, and you’re sitting at your kitchen table crying aimlessly over a textbook. Your mom brings you a small plate of peeled fruit. She sets it on the table quietly. Nothing will be said– not then and not after the event that will surely repeat itself in another week. 

With mounting pressure to live up to the model minority stereotype, ever-persistent discrimination, and overwhelming expectations to maintain cultural traditions, it’s no wonder that mental health issues take a dramatic toll on Asian communities. 

The practical harms of Asian parents’ lack of response to these struggles manifest themselves in a vivid statistical disparity: Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek out mental health services.

Honest discussion about mental health can be both preventative and healing. But, neither can occur if parents are avoiding the topic, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

So why exactly are Asian parents avoiding the topic of mental health?

I interviewed Asian-American teens and parents to share their perspectives. 

17-year-old Mia C. explains, “From a young age, my parents’ generation was taught to not show fallibility or vulnerability, especially to their parents who they were supposed to treat with the utmost respect.” She elaborates, “Mental health was diminished because it was being compared to the hardships of traveling across seas to a new country with only the money in their pockets and the clothes on their back. So the parents of our parents (our grandparents) suggested that it wasn’t a legitimate issue. That was imprinted on them.”

This explanation certainly makes sense: How would Asian parents feel comfortable talking about mental health if they had grown up believing that acknowledging their own struggles was a sign of weakness.

Fellow teen, Halinda Y., echoes a similar sentiment. She shares, “Part of why Asian parents don’t believe in mental health issues is related to the environment in which they grew up. Mental illnesses are misunderstood as being nothing more than sad emotions. Our parents didn’t have an environment where mental illnesses were treated by professionals or with seriousness. So when they grew up like this and overcame their “bad feelings”, many Asian parents view personal perseverance and self-suppression of feelings as ‘normal.’ That means they expect us (their children) to do the same when we encounter negative emotions.”

Several interviewees expressed their belief that present-day silence regarding mental health is the product of generations of silence. 

Maya U. furthers that view and describes the harsh tradeoff that parents frequently make. She explains, “Because Asian parents personally were not given an understanding of how important mental health is, they often encourage prioritization of school and overlook mental health.”

Offering a unique perspective, Gavin C. describes, “Sometimes they (Asian parents) don’t talk about mental health because they want to make the amount of pressure they put on you for school, extracurriculars, and college applications seem normal.”

Perhaps, ignoring mental health issues may be a parents’ subconscious way of side-stepping uncomfortable discussions and evading the consequences of placing nearly impossible expectations on their children.

However, it’s most definitely possible for Asian parents to foster an open dialogue with their children. 18-year-old Pascal R. shares that growing up, this was the case for him. He reflects, “I think it’s great that my parents are open about mental health because they support everything that I’ve been bringing up. But in general, Asian parents have a stereotype of not caring about wellbeing. I think I’m really lucky that mine will help me if I have issues.” 

Dr. Rhee, who has experienced both roles as the child of immigrant parents and as a parent, shares, “Our parents never talked about mental health with us. One time when I was crying about something, my Dad said, “Why are you being so sensitive.” That was the extent of mental health. So it’s different as a second-generation parent; you want to be more sensitive because you don’t want your kids to feel like they can’t talk about what they’re feeling. Anxiety and depressive symptomatology are so prevalent, and the pressure to succeed in Asian families is so high. It’s a balance you have to find as a parent.”

Sophia C., also a parent, explains, “There’s this idea that you have to “save face” for the honor of the family and that has both created stigma and forced people into feeling ashamed of their struggles. When a child brings up mental health issues, sometimes the parents are quick to dismiss it because they don’t know how to handle the situation. But now there’s more readily available resources that I hope parents will turn to for assistance. It’s difficult, of course, to admit you don’t know how to do something. But, proactively educating oneself, is a necessary step for parents to help their kids navigate and properly address mental health issues”.

Parents can connect and support their children by striking that balance, encouraging ones’ children to live fulfilling and healthy lives, and welcoming discussion when mental health issues arise. 

Pretending to be “totally okay at all times” is the norm in many Asian households. Yet, nothing about that norm is at all okay. This belief has harmed countless individuals and undermined the livelihood of an entire culture. However, this belief is not immutable, and it is already beginning to change with our generation.

Here’s to a future where children hopefully won’t sacrifice their mental health to stay up until 2 am studying and where Asian parents will respond with more than plates of peeled fruit. 

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If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis and is contemplating self-harm, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


More resources: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/

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