From One Asian American to Others: These Are 5 Things You Need to Know About Mental Illness

We come from a culture where depression and mental illness are stigmatized and deemed unworthy of addressing.
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Publish date:
April 25, 2016
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mental illness, family, therapy, depression, suicide, stigma, mental healh, Asian Americans

I've known I was depressed since I was a young girl. Beginning in fourth grade, I would sit on my bedroom floor, stare at the wall, and have tears stream down my face. I had no idea why I felt that way, but it was comforting for me to pull my hair out.

A few years later, I still sat down and cried, but I would release my feelings in my diary and rant about how lost and alone I felt. I had just started middle school, and I was more aware of my emotions. I remember asking myself, How many other children feel like this? Am I the only one?

In high school, after taking AP Psych, I was sure I was clinically depressed, so I asked my mom if I could see a therapist. She scoffed at me, as many traditional Asian mothers would.

I come from a culture where depression and mental illness are extremely stigmatized and deemed unworthy of addressing.

When I finally sought professional help in college, I was diagnosed as having a borderline personality. My psychiatrist also said I was suffering from anxiety, depression, and severe unresolved trauma from childhood; my treatment consisted of medication and weekly counseling. At first, I was against taking medicine, for fear of unwarranted side effects; it was my last resort.

Dr. Kalman Heller wrote for PsychCentral that "10 to 15 percent of children and teens are depressed at any given time. One out of four adolescents will have an episode of major depression during high school with the average age of onset being 14 years. These episodes typically last several months when untreated."

I felt like my episodes lasted for years and that I was forever incapable of being happy. When my therapist told me many college students suffer from depression, some even starting in middle school, I breathed an intense sigh of relief.

Here's what Asian-American women who suffer from mental illness, like myself, want the rest of the Asian-American community (and beyond) to know.

It's Not Like We Don't Try

Everyone who is suffering from mental illness — not just Asian-American women — is trying. Every day, we fight our battles and darkest demons so that they don't get a hold of us. Mental illness is similar to addiction in that we are constantly fighting against our weakest self so that we can be our strongest self.

Asian Americans, in particular, are less inclined to get help because of our culture. Even if we were raised in the US, more often than not, our traditional family tries to debunk mental illness and, because of that, we can't seek help even if we want to.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate of white Americans in 2013, "and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate." The statistic is not at all surprising, based on my personal experience. The fact that I wanted to seek help at an early age, yet my mother forbade me to, is a reason I could not get treatment.

And I am not alone. Irina, a 26-year-old Korean American, told me she felt the same way. She had sought treatment for her severe anxiety and her mother forbade her to go to therapy when she was in high school. Like me, in college, she began seeing a therapist without her parents' knowledge.

I absolutely hate how Irina and I have had to hide what is one of the biggest issues we face on a daily basis. We should be able to discuss this openly, and without fear. We need to know we are not alone.

We Are Not Doing This Because We Crave Attention

When I first told my mother I was seeing a therapist, she told me I must be so bored with my life that my need to consult with a therapist was because I wanted to make my life more interesting. She asked me, "Why do you crave such attention?" An attention she deemed negative.

Of course, her words stung. I tried not to take it personally, but when you suffer from mental illness, it's hard not to.

Those who have mental illness are not being intentionally dramatic. They are not coming out of secrecy because they want attention. The last thing we need is for someone to tell us we are a drama queen. When Asian-American women face this kind of negative, closed-minded reaction, we need to distance ourselves from the source. Being told we're doing this for attention is not helping us get any better.

Suicide Is Not Something to Joke About

A member of my extended family hung herself a year ago. Her nieces — my cousins — who were in high school at the time, told me they were sad about her death, but that she was selfish.

"How could she just leave us like that?" they retorted. I was appalled at their anger and disappointed they felt that way. I told them everyone is fighting their own battles, and it's disrespectful of them to say that. They didn't know what she was going through, but on some level, I knew.

She talked to her therapist every day and was on medication. She was a successful entrepreneur, and one of the kindest people I knew. She had said things like, "One day, I will kill myself," but my cousins said she was an attention-seeking nuisance. They joked about her talk of suicide and didn't realize it was a cry for help.

The fact that other Asian-American women (family, no less!) can pit themselves against one another is something that desperately needs to change. We need to listen meaningfully and believe when others say they are suffering.

The American Psychological Association says that "among all Asian Americans, those aged 20 to 24 had the highest suicide rate. Among females from all racial backgrounds between the ages of 65 and 84, Asian Americans had the highest suicide rate." Suicide was also determined to be the second leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15 to 34.

Mental illness is a lifelong disease, and we may never feel 100% "normal." However, we can try so that our lives are least manageable. Our families and community realizing we are not doing this for attention can only help.

We Are Not "Crazy"

One of my favorite ways of escaping is by starting a new project. I find new hobbies, new interests. I learn something new. I divert myself entirely from thinking negatively about myself and my capabilities (or lack thereof). It's a technique my therapist and I agreed is healthy for me and my parameters. I'm not saying everyone should do this, but it's better than me smoking cigarettes or drowning myself in Cabernet, which is what I used to do before I began therapy.

People have told me, perhaps jokingly, that I'm "crazy" for immersing myself in many new things. Some have said it's admirable, but that it's apparent I have a commitment issue. A family member once said to me, "You're a jack of all trades, master of none!"

Throughout life, you will meet a plethora of opinionated people who are eager to tell you what they think of you, regardless of whether you asked them. Throughout my short life, people have made innumerable assumptions about me. On my bad days, I play what they say to me in my head until it completely drains me and all I'm doing is thinking about what an awful and pathetic person I am. But I keep telling myself I'm trying, and that's all that matters.

Poking Fun of Mental Illness Is Triggering

We need to destigmatize mental illness. We need to stop calling people "crazy." Those of us who are suffering need to be able to talk about this openly and get the support we need. Asian-American families, in particular, need to be more supportive and concerned when a family member says they need help.

When my mother told me she didn't believe me, I spiraled into an even deeper depression. Accusing me of lying and making fun of my depression was extremely triggering for me. It's imperative when you know someone with mental illness that you tread carefully. Sometimes, especially in a culture where depression is disparaged, you may be the only one who can help.