As we prepare to start another academic year, it’s important to remember that for many Asian American students at all levels, the flip side of being thought of as the “model minority” or “super-students” is the pressure of living up to those lofty expectations. If and when those unrealistic expectations are not met, many encounter various forms of depression, mental illness, thoughts of suicide, and — in the case of Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman — psychopathic violence.
Slowly, school officials are waking up to this reality and unfortunately, have begun addressing this phenomenon head-on. As Diverse Issues in Education reports, many colleges with large numbers of Asian American students have implemented programs that proactively seeks out and helps Asian American students who may be at risk:
College can be a tough time for any student, regardless of ethnicity. But many Asians face particular stresses as they are caught between two cultures, according to Dr. Nolan Zane, director of the UC-Davis center. Asians are expected by mainstream society to do well. And if they’re from an immigrant family, the expectations are even higher. Students may feel pressured into “safe” career paths like medicine or law.
When problems such as social anxiety and depression arise, cultural barriers prevent many from seeking help. Talking about problems to outsiders is considered taboo and shameful. Getting help from family often isn’t an option either. Many Asians attach a strong stigma to mental health problems or simply deny their existence.
Zane recalls that the parents of a Chinese American student couldn’t understand why he recommended that their son get counseling. The parents thought their distraught son, whose grades were slipping, just needed to study harder. . . .
White students may wrestle with the same problems, but tend to get help or be helped sooner, says Dr. Wai-Kwong Wong, a counselor at Cornell’s Gannett Health Services. . . . Cornell officials were jolted into action after a university-sponsored report in 2004 detailed the sense of isolation and dissatisfaction among Asian American and international Asian students. . . .
At Cornell, the efforts that started four years ago are starting to yield results. From the time he was a freshman until he graduated in May, Timothy Chow witnessed a dramatic change in awareness about mental health issues among his fellow Asian classmates.
In response to the university report on Asian students, Chow and several friends organized a group to advocate for changes. At the initial meetings, fewer than 10 students expressed interest. Chow says that many students likely shied away because they didn’t want to be associated with mental health issues.
But this past school year, two events on stress relief sponsored by the Asian/Asian-American Forum attracted more than 100 people each. The fairs featured massage therapists, yoga sessions and presentations from a nutritionist and counselors.
The article goes on to mention that one potential drawback of such intensified efforts to address mental health issues among Asian American students is that it may lead to the perception that being an Asian American students means that you are automatically at risk for mental health issues.
That’s a fair and very insightful observation and one that I had not thought of. Nonetheless, I think that is still less of a danger than the other way around — ignoring Asian American students who may be suffering in silence and isolation.
The statistics from studies such as that from Cornell tell a very compelling picture — Asian American students face unique pressures and challenges that other students do not. Yes, there is a danger of using data like this to “essentialize” Asian American students in the same way of thinking that we’re all good at math.
But in today’s globalized and multicultural racial/ethnic landscape, I think most Americans are sophisticated enough to know that the Asian American community is more complex than that. Besides, I’d rather take that risk than one that sets the stage for another Seung-Hui Cho to emerge.