Personal Stories

How The Model Minority Myth Impacted My Mental Health Journey

by Rick Y.

“Get off your phone and all your worries will disappear.”

I heard those words two years ago from my parents, who were astonished by the withdrawn behavior from their supposedly outgoing and high-achieving high school standout.

Not long after the global pandemic struck, my isolation skyrocketed. Virtual school felt strange, surreal, and my perpetually dimly lit room was nothing short of disorienting. Simply put, I felt mentally stuck.

And the day came. I had come home, locked myself in my room for eight hours, and finally came out of hibernation for some sustenance at 11 p.m. That’s when I heard it. My mother hissed something barely audible to my father downstairs. I transcribed what she said in the notes app on my phone, translating from Mandarin to English: “I think he’s suicidal. He has Xīnlǐ bìng [mental illness]. Let’s bring him to the psychologist.”

I was speechless. I didn’t think I was struggling with my mental health — and I surely didn’t think my mother noticed that anything was wrong. I had missed every subtle cue she gave me, like when she asked if I needed help with anything out of the blue when I came home with a melancholic smile.

Even now, I have not yet confronted her about what she said — and I don’t know whether it’s best that I do. What I do know is this: the model minority myth is what prevented my mother from sharing her discoveries to professionals. I am a Chinese American student attending relatively high-achieving school where mental health was heavily stigmatized among Chinese families. The cultural beliefs in Chinese American communities prioritize the importance of maintaining “face,” emphasizing the value of perseverance and minimizing the discussion of mental struggles.

Consequently, when I reached out to my school psychologist a week after eavesdropping, I was surprised to see his genuine understanding of my struggles, and it became clear his approach was culturally informed. He understood what it meant to be Asian and living with mental health issues.

Looking back, I did not reach out to anyone at the onset of my mental health struggles, and I blame the model minority myth: the societal perception that Asian Americans are “problem-free” minorities — a myth that maintains harmful racial hierarchies and masks the pervasiveness of systemic racism faced by Asian Americans.

It’s no surprise that the model minority myth caused me so much harm; It reduces a broad swath of the world’s population to a simple stereotype. It forces unwarranted expectations on Asian American youth and makes any struggle to live up to them invisible. The myth is more than a myth, it’s a blanket for a society to hide its racism against Asian Americans obediently resting under, an instrument of manipulation.

The way I see things, we are left with two options: Defiance or complicity. Rise against traditional stereotypes or stand with our back turned to conventional power hierarchies. By choosing the former, I am paving the way for a more open and honest discussion about social inequality and mental health.

Ultimately, my personal journey through the labyrinth of mental health, cultural stigma and the suffocating weight of the model minority myth has been a transformative experience. It underscored the need for truly comprehensive and culturally informed mental health support in schools and communities.

I hope that by sharing my story, I can help to dismantle harmful narratives in society surrounding racist ideology. Perhaps this will create a world in which mental health issues are not veiled by cultural expectations or stereotypes. By confronting these issues head-on, I foresee a future where every individual, regardless of background, feels seen, heard and understood. It's a future where everyone can openly seek help without fear of judgment or stigma — a future where mental well-being is as important as physical health. That is the future I want to be a part of.