By Alexis Anderson
One of the most comprehensive efforts to measure comparable rates of psychiatric disorders among different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. found that Asian Americans appear to be paragons of stable mental health.
Asian Americans have a 2.1 percent lifetime chance of having a generalized anxiety disorder, according to the Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s less than a quarter of the rate for White Americans. Asian Americans also by far have the lowest reported rates of major depressive episodes compared to Whites, Blacks and Latinos. The same goes for drug or alcohol abuse, panic attacks or any mood disorders.
What the epidemiologic surveys don’t capture, however, is the conflicted pressure many young Asian Americans face from themselves and their families to succeed academically and professionally. That worry stems from specific expectations with cultural and ethnic roots, said Sumie Okazaki, a professor of counseling psychology at Counseling@NYU, which offers an online masters in school counseling from NYU Steinhardt.
In particular, Asian Americans who are the children or grandchildren of immigrants feel the weight of their families’ sacrifices. Okazaki co-authored a study in 2013, with Anne Saw and Howard Berenbaum, that showed that Asian American college students did not differ from Whites in their overall tendency to worry. But Asian Americans were far more likely to stress about living up to their parents’ expectations.
What’s more, the cultural striving for excellence creates a stigma for Asian Americans who don’t measure up by conventional yardsticks of success. It can make them reluctant to seek help. That’s compounded by the fact that many Asian cultures – Chinese, Korean and Japanese chief among them – adhere to the notion of “saving face,” a propensity for keeping any potentially shame-inducing facts within the family. And mental illness is judged with prejudice in many Asian cultures.
Studies have shown that Asian Americans are less likely than other groups to seek care from mental-health clinicians. Even when they do reach out to professionals like school counselors, Asian Americans tend to do so more for academic troubles than for emotional difficulties.
The relatively low use of mental-health services isn’t for lack of need. Asian Pacific Islanders are a disparate group made up of 43 distinct ethnicities who speak more than 100 languages and dialects. For every Asian American graduate of Harvard, many others are struggling to keep up in class or simply trying to assimilate. In the University of California system, 90 percent of Laotian Americans are the first in their families to attend college. That’s true for fewer than 25 percent of students of Japanese, Taiwanese or Indian heritage – lower than even for white Americans.
Okazaki, of Counseling@NYU, hopes that her research will help better equip school counselors to work with Asian American students. The pressures of living up to the “model minority” image maybe overwhelming to some. The challenge is to find out which students need help, and how.
“It’s hard to tell how unhappy these worries make them,” Okazaki said. However, she reminds school counselors that they can be a force for positive change by combating the model minority myth in schools so that peers, teachers, and school administrators do not compound the academic pressure on Asian American students.
Alexis Anderson is a Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.
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