For many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), the experience of being a racial minority in the U.S. is largely informed by the “model minority” stereotype, a cultural expectation that their demographic will achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success. Specifically, this stereotype suggests that Asian Americans best embody the “American Dream” with an incredibly strong work ethic and inherent intelligence.
Accordingly, Asian American students find themselves pressured to attend prestigious universities and pursue esteemed careers (often in law, medicine or engineering). Indeed, AAPI are often perceived as the model of prestige and socioeconomic success.
This stereotype is harmful for several reasons as it:
- Pits minority groups against each other
- Invalidates people’s complex experience and overlooks the struggles of AAPI
- Reinforces unhealthy cultural expectations about success and resilience
Specifically, these cultural expectations have ramifications for the mental health of AAPI and their ability to seek appropriate care. The consequences are dire; according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), suicide is the second leading cause of death among Asian American young adults.
As I have reflected on my own experience, and learned more about mental health, I have come to believe that addressing the mental health crisis requires understanding the specific ways in which the model minority stereotype prevents AAPI from seeking help for their mental health.
Reinforcing Cultural Barriers
The widely perpetuated model minority stereotype often plays out in family dynamics, and in turn, impacts how people address their mental health. For example, respect for the immigrant experience is central to many AAPI households — many of us are made aware of the family sacrifices and hardships that led to a better and successful life in the U.S. Often, this reverence for resilience and strength discourages the sharing of emotions; talking about mental health, in some families, is considered weak and a modern “luxury.”
While the conversation surrounding mental health is slowly changing in the U.S., and efforts to destigmatize mental illness are encouraging a cultural shift — I have noticed in the AAPI community that struggles with mental health are scoffed at and brushed off as entitlement.
Additionally, I have found that AAPI are often raised to conceal their emotions as a defense against the discrimination and racism they will face. Ultimately, this causes a fear of vulnerability and any perceived failure. As a result, many AAPI are uncomfortable with disclosing their mental health struggles, fearing they will disappoint family members and deviate from the model minority standard.
Confusion Toward Seeking Support in Mental Health Services
Even when services are made available, how does one advocate for oneself when their upbringing has enforced the need to prioritize their family’s happiness over their own? While resources are available, the information provided doesn’t always provide specific steps to disclosing a mental health issue or explain the basics (for example, the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist or a standard price for treatment).
These are possible reasons why AAPI are hesitant to seek support; often, the steps toward self-care are overwhelming and unfamiliar. Many wonder if they even have the time to seek help.
Resources for AAPI Seeking Mental Health Support
Addressing mental health conditions and getting on the path toward recovery is a gradual process that requires patience, especially for those of us who are also unlearning cultural norms. Taking the first steps toward healing is one of many difficulties AAPI face because our culture has taught us that prioritizing one’s personal needs is selfish. Moreover, few people are willing to risk the social and even professional repercussions of deviating from the model minority stereotype to seek help.
However, for those who are ready to take this step, there are resources available.
If finances are a barrier to finding help:
Many individuals may prefer to see an AAPI therapist to begin their journey toward healing. If the resources above are still overwhelming, reading AAPI written blogs, finding social media posts and watching YouTube videos about mental health within the AAPI community are other alternatives. Hearing AAPI experiences is another way to begin validating your own experiences. Self-care isn’t selfish or a sign of weakness; rather, it primes us for empowerment and resilience.
Phoebe Castillo Chua is a UC Davis alumna working under the Stanford School of Medicine’s LEAP program to improve the health of Bay Area communities. She was previously a clinical intern and the Mind and Wellness Coordinator in Willow Clinic, providing medical services to people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento.