May 21, 2007
Written by C.N.
I’ve written before about how pressures on young Asian Americans to conform to the “model minority” expectations of American society in general and their parents in particular, can become overwhelming and lead to suicide. As we commemorate May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, CNN has an article that reminds us that this is an issue that continues to be relevant in our community:
Moved by [her sister's suicide], [Assistant professor of Asian-American Studies at California State University at Fullerton Eliza] Noh has spent much of her professional life studying depression and suicide among Asian-American women. Noh has read the sobering statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services: Asian-American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women in that age range.
Depression starts even younger than age 15. Noh says one study has shown that as young as the fifth grade, Asian-American girls have the highest rate of depression so severe they’ve contemplated suicide. As Noh and others have searched for the reasons, a complex answer has emerged. First and foremost, they say “model minority” pressure — the pressure some Asian-American families put on children to be high achievers at school and professionally — helps explain the problem. . . .
But Noh says pressure from within the family doesn’t completely explain the shocking suicide statistics for young women like her sister. She says American culture has adopted the myth that Asians are smarter and harder-working than other minorities. “It’s become a U.S.-based ideology, popular from the 1960s onward, that Asian-Americans are smarter, and should be doing well whether at school or work.” Noh added that simply being a minority can also lead to depression.
The article makes two very important points. The first is that “model minority” expectations — on the part of Asian parents and American society in general — can produce expectations of success that can be overwhelming to many Asian Americans. As I’ve said before, the quest for material success has to have its limits — there’s nothing wrong with working hard, but pushing young Asian Americans so much that it leads them to want to kill themselves is obviously going too far.
Just as important, the second major point to keep in mind is that because the U.S. is such a race-conscious society, the very fact of being a person of color can also be stressful.
In very simple terms, being a person of color means that you are constantly aware that you are not part of the majority in this country, that those who control the social institutions that affect your daily lives do not look like you, and that you have to deal with the lingering legacies and continuing patterns of systematically being treated unfairly because your skin color and physical appearance are different from the White majority.
With those two factors in mind, it’s no wonder that Asian Americans can be prone to depression and mental illness. On top of that, Asian American women have the added challenges associated with gender inequality and discrimination as well.
The bottom line is, there are many, many risk factors for depression and mental illness for Asian Americans. We cannot assume that we are somehow immune to these issues, or that we can just fall back on cultural traditions of stoically suppressing them in silence, or even worse — taking out our frustrations onto others. If you find yourself with these kinds of emotions, please seek help before it’s too late.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "When Too Much Pressure Leads to Suicide" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/05/when-too-much-pressure-leads-to-suicide/> ().
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