Starting Conversations: Mental Health of Asian Americans
by Maya Saravanan
Literature, images, film and music filled the Stories Untold gallery, each describing a different struggle of a diverse array of Pitt students. The therapeutic nature of the exhibit was inspiring, as each piece played a role in collectively forming a showcase of strength, resilience and power. Using the art as leverage, students engaged in meaningful discussion on what could be the greatest unspoken tragedy of our nation’s college campuses – poor mental health.
Mental illness is a largely avoided topic in many college students’ conversations. It is often considered ‘taboo’, or ‘not a real sickness.’ However, similar to any physical ailment, information needs to be shared, minds need to be opened and changes to these stigmas must be made in order to allow students suffering from mental illnesses to heal and thrive.
Mental health should be treated with the utmost importance, especially considering the stressful, multifaceted life of a college student. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experience symptoms while on a college campus. Furthermore, about 34 percent of these students report that they were unaware of their condition. Sadly, the crisis doesn’t end there. Approximately 7 percent of U.S. college students had “seriously considered” suicide during the 2014-2015 academic year.1 Fortunately, gallery exhibitions such as Stories Untold, encourage the much-needed conversation on our campus. This exhibition provides Pitt students with a multimedia outlet to express individual stories of mental health’s influence on campus. The gallery also aims for transparency in conversations regarding these issues.
“One of our goals was to see the power of creative expression in helping students cope with mental illness or convey their thoughts and experiences on what can be a taboo topic,” Harinee Suthakar, a Pitt senior and a coordinator of Stories Untold, explained. This event urges the necessity for students and faculty to see the equal importance of mental health with physical well-being. Another prominent goal for the gallery is for students and faculty alike to gain a better understanding of the symptoms of mental health disorders among their peers, since many are unaware of common signs identifying these conditions. The exhibition will be on display from Friday October 9 through Friday October 30 in the Connie M. Kimbo gallery space on the main floor of the William Pitt Union. The gallery will be open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Not only is there an absence of conversation regarding mental health with many college students, but there is also a notable division among races when it comes to seeking mental strength. This division is most starkly seen in the Asian American population since the topic is vastly unaddressed in this community. Discussion of mental health in Asian American households is usually laden with contempt and clandestineness, thus discouraging young Asian Americans from broaching the topic with their families.
That being said, the issue of mental health in minority communities was addressed at one point in U.S. history. In 1963, the Kennedy administration established the Community Mental Health Centers Act, which attempted to reach out to minority communities in order to encourage them to seek aid for mental disorders. However, due to existing stigmas surrounding healthcare cost and family dishonor, the Act was not as effective for Asian Americans as it should have been. Insufficient funding and efforts from the government led to negligible changes, leaving people of all races with inadequate resources for mental health.
The Pitt Center on Race and Social Problems has released previous reports as well, which highlight the crisis of mental illness among Asian Americans. Here in Allegheny County, Asians constitute only 0.3 percent of mental health clients, though they experience mental health conditions at about the same rate as other races. This indicates that Asian Americans seek help less frequently when suffering from mental illness, due to a plethora of cultural and social factors. Though Asians are often referred to as a “model minority,” they face the paradox of determining just how much pressure is too much. The result of rigid family values results in intense pressure, causing young Asian Americans to feel overwhelmed when they enter college. The stress of achievement for many of these students often overpowers stable mental health.
Sandhya Subramanian, a Pitt senior whose own research has pioneered Pitt’s minority culture and mental health movement, stresses the importance of familial support. She believes that the support is something that does not exist for the issue of mental health in Asian households. “Sometimes older Asian generations view mental health illness as a disgrace to the family and going to therapy as shameful to their family name, so they often do not support it for their children,” she described. She explains a phenomenon called “somatization,” where mental illness is spoken of using physical descriptions, as adequate mental illness vocabulary does not exist in Asian cultures.
Pressure and ignorance within Asian households continue to be leading reasons why Asian Americans do not regard good mental health as a necessity. A study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Kramer of the Charles Wang Community Center explains that traditional hierarchical structures in Asian households often follow a pattern of “need-submission” to the greater good of the family. In other words, the views of the family and elders are prioritized over those of adolescents. Sadly, mental health is no exception to the trend.
But why is denial of mental health such a prominent issue in Asian American households? As with any immigrant family, assimilation into American culture can be extremely difficult. Asian American students are especially susceptible to such hardships. Students of immigrant families sometimes struggle to balance the dichotomy of traditional values with westernized conveniences. A Michigan State University review states: “U.S.-born Asians report far higher rates of depression (about 22 percent) than foreign-born Asians,” indicating that the cultural contradiction may be a leading cause. This concept seems to hit close to home as well. 76 percent of Pitt students are white, while only 8 percent are Asian, indicating that our campus may epitomize the Asian American “clash.”
Social stress, combined with familial pressures for academic success can create difficulties for Asian Americans to maintain stable mental health. Ja-Way Wang, a Pitt junior studying marketing, recognizes the prevalence of this concept: “The respect and financial benefits associated with health professions are major factors in most Asian homes. There is intense pressure for Asian students to strive to succeed at one of the top schools for pre-health in the world. My immigrant parents want me to become a medical doctor and I used to be pre-med, so I speak from experience. For some students, competition is what they live for. However for many others, it’s an endless struggle that takes a heavy toll on their psyche.”
So how do we mitigate the effects of poor mental health at Pitt? For this, there are numerous angles to take. For example, Sandhya urges all concerned students to utilize Pitt’s Counseling Center, which is entirely confidential and included in the routine wellness fee paid by students. Her research has shown strong support behind the claim that counseling can greatly decrease mental distress. In Ja-Way’s opinion, treatment for Asian American students is geared more towards friends and family.
Like many students, I have had personal experiences with the beast that is mental distress. Through independent research, I have learned that treatment often starts with oneself. It seems as though much of our youth is in denial of accepting our mental instability. “It’s okay” or“I’m fine” are common lies we tell each other and ourselves everyday. However, it’s high time to take mental health as the serious issue that it is. As shown, Pitt is home to endless resources and support for anyone who may be struggling with their mental health. Regardless of how one wants to start their journey, it’s important to recognize that any step towards bettering mental health has the potential to be truly life changing.
In a nation where Asian Americans have a significantly higher rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts (11.9 percent) compared to Caucasians (8.8 percent), mental health awareness is vital. Because of the cultural inclination to succeed, Asian students are constantly put under pressure to impress their parents, peers, and most importantly, themselves. Though finding the balance between sanity and success is easier said than done, it’s up to us as a university to promote a challenging, yet nurturing environment for our student body. Thanks to motivated students such as Sandhya and Ja-Way, as well as outlets such as Stories Untold for mental health awareness, our campus is well on its way to becoming healthier and happier. Let’s encourage the discussion on mental health to flourish as we set an example for universities across the world.