A recent study found that U.S.-born Asian-American women are more likely than other groups to consider and attempt suicide. NPR's Michel Martin asked lead author Aileen Duldulao and Disgrasian co-founder Jen Wang for their thoughts on why that might be.
Though some obvious disclaimers need to come before any generalizations — like that "Asian-American" is a ridiculously broad term, there hasn't been enough research and, according to Duldulao, "there's still lot of competing ideas out there" — both women offered some strong opinions on the matter.
Wang — the daughter of immigrants and a depressive who "probably will be [in therapy] for life, just because I actually enjoy it a lot" — says the "achievement-oriented culture" in many Asian-American families, combined with a tendency to see mental health issues as failure, is a one-two punch that can lead to depression going undiagnosed and untreated. "I mean, when I was growing up, there wasn't even a word for depression. It was always, you know, you're not trying hard enough or oh, well, you think you have problems, or just work harder in school or pick up a new hobby, you know, practice the piano."
Duldulao agrees, but adds, "I think what's really missing is a sort of socio-political context" — the effect that hypersexualization and "these stereotypes of Asian-American women being very demure and passive or being very strict, bossy, sort of the dragon lady" play. Trying to be yourself in a culture that expects you to be both submissive and intensely sexual — or, if you're not, dismisses you as a pushy bitch — is stressful, to say the least.
But that's only the beginning. Duldulao points out that research shows Asian-Americans "have a very low uptake of mental health services... And in large part, that is due to the lack of culturally competent and culturally sensitive mental health clinicians out there." What does "culturally competent" mean? Based on her own experience, Wang says some Western therapists automatically perceive strict, traditional Asian parents as "evil and controlling and demanding," without factoring in the cultural context that shaped them, so "you go in with mommy issues, and you end up defending your mom, you know?" Worse yet, sometimes when you try to explain that cultural context — like maybe how your parents grew up in the middle of a war, lost homes, lost loved ones — "you end up feeling like you're Amy Tan, and you're a storyteller." And then you're paying for the privilege of entertaining your therapist, which is always a good time.
So, to recap: Let's say you have extremely traditional parents who encourage you to achieve at all costs, discourage any admission of weakness, and think the cure for depression is working harder. And you grow up in a society that tells you the only two good things you can be are a fucktoy and a submissive doll, and if you're not one of those, you're probably a mean, nasty "dragon lady" — all of which is reinforced by a lifetime of sexist and racist slurs. If you seek therapy, your chances of finding a counselor with a similar background are virtually nil, and a typical Western one is likely to tell you your parents are abusive assholes and/or turn the session into storytime, with you as the fascinating, "exotic" raconteur. Yeah, I think I can see where the despair might come from.
Check out the whole interview.