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Dying To Get Help: Mental Health Stigma in Asian Communities

Imagine coming down with pneumonia and being too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Your motivation? The fear of being judged. Now imagine going to great lengths to hide your condition from everyone — even your doctor — even if going untreated will leave you permanently disabled. Or worse: dead. Again, the motivation is fear […]

Imagine coming down with pneumonia and being too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Your motivation? The fear of being judged. Now imagine going to great lengths to hide your condition from everyone — even your doctor — even if going untreated will leave you permanently disabled. Or worse: dead. Again, the motivation is fear of bringing shame to not just yourself but your entire family as well.

This would never happen. Everyone knows that pneumonia is a medical event, not a personal choice. It doesn’t represent a failure of any kind, except perhaps your immune system. It happens in a judgment-free zone like almost any other illness.

But what about OCD, anxiety, or other mental health issues? Can you suffer from depression and not feel shame? Unfortunately, for many Asian communities, the judgement-free zone for mental health issues doesn’t exist yet.

Mental Health Stigmatization in Asian Communities

From Hong Kong to India to Silicon Valley, a disproportionately high number of Asians are suffering from mental health issues in silence and without treatment. Even in the US, where mental health advocates have made huge strides in de-stigmatization lately, Asian Americans are three times more likely to suffer in silence than their white counterparts.

What gives — how could having a depression problem be so embarrassing?

After all, celebs are opening up about their conditions left and right in the media. Chrissy Teigen is just one of the recent stars working to help reduce the stigma by opening up about her struggles with postpartum depression in Glamour magazine.

It’s also the darling cause of the youngest generation of British royalty. Both Prince Harry and Prince William have marked public appearances by touting the importance of destigmatizing mental health issues. Even Lady Gaga gets in on the action and becomes part of the conversation in a FaceTime chat with the two royals.

So clearly, a lot is being done to break down those barriers and get people talking about mental health so everyone can “feel normal” about it, as Prince William puts it.

However, these efforts are having little effect on Asian communities across the globe. It’s definitely a cultural thing.

It’s Deeply Cultural but Times Are Changing

We could go into all the ways that Asian culture judge’s mental illness, but the end result is the same: in general, having a mental disorder when you’re Asian pretty much amounts to watching the ashes of your ancestors tragically wash down over your family’s pride whenever you speak of your illness. And your entire family history is bathed in shame if you go see the doctor for your issues. Yes, it’s that bad.

Fortunately, things are looking up for us. And 2019 could be the year we see a pivot in the collective Asian community mindset in the area of mental health stigmatization. Inklings of this has recently surfaced. There’s Sophia Ng, who was crowned Miss Asian America in 2017 and used the pageant platform to talk about her own past with suicidal depression. And Congresswoman Judy Chu introduced a bill in 2017 to increase mental health awareness in Asian-American communities.

How many more Asians need to die before they can seek help for mental health services without fear of being shunned by their families? Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The key to moving forward is awareness and discussion. It doesn’t have to be a beauty pageant-level discussion like Ms. Ng was able to pull off, or a Bill-in-Congress-level of awareness from Ms. Chu. It just has to start somewhere, and it has to come from the heart. People fear things they don’t understand. If we begin the conversation now we can change that. Then, we can work to shatter the stigma — together.

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