My core childhood memories all revolve around me poorly navigating my mental health. I was the weird, introverted social outcast that chronically sat alone during lunch because of my social anxiety. I coped by reading an unhealthy number of books and egotistically working. But throughout all my childhood mental health struggles — the crying fits, the anger, the abuse and the feelings of hopelessness — no one in my life offered me the support I needed.
Only years later did I understand that my situation was not unique — for decades, America’s white-centered mental health care system has ignored the mental health problems faced by Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDA).
Culturally, mental health stigmas are prevalent in APIDA communities. Sometimes I forget that the only environment I’ve ever felt comfortable speaking about my mental health in has been at Pitzer College. In 2019, only 4.9 percent of APIDA used mental health services, the lowest rate among all racial groups. To many APIDA parents, professional help is the antithesis to their toxic mindsets of success. A part of the framework of “success” that APIDA parents seek means that a flaw in one’s mental health is an embarrassing failure. Parental pressure to succeed, while well-intentioned, can inversely manifest as stress and anxiety when parents’ expectations are not met.
APIDA homogeneously face mental stressors in the form of racism. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The model minority myth (the false idea where APIDA have been universally stereotyped as smarter, more successful and richer) causes real psychological harm when others have wrong perceptions of APIDA solely because of our race. In fact, psychologists from the University of Hartford showed how deeply this stereotype is ingrained in society. White college students perceived APIDA students as having better mental health functioning simply because of their race. This microaggression, along with racial attacks APIDA experience daily (like being called Chinese regardless of your background, being told to go back where you came from or simply the anguish of watching violent hate crimes against APIDA), play a part in adolescent bicultural stress.
Part of bicultural stress results from the pressure APIDA youth face to adapt to both white American and minority cultures at the same time. This pressure is manifested in a myriad of forms. Personally, I felt a constant feeling of displacement during my childhood. I understood I could never conform to white American cultural standards whenever I translated for my parents, explained what Lunar New Year was or got asked what food I was eating. The displacement has only been amplified by coming to a predominately white institution. Research by the University of Arizona concluded that while such bicultural stressors affect all genders, they particularly cause a dearth of optimism and depressive symptoms for females.
The fact that APIDA face racial stressors should not be surprising. I feel safest when I’m with other Vietnamese Americans, where I can openly converse and enjoy a sense of unique belonging. However, if those bonds break, ethno-cultural betrayal follows. Ethno-cultural betrayal happens when someone from an ethnic group abuses someone (physically, sexually or psychologically) of the same ethnicity. This substantially worsens post-traumatic stress disorder, hallucinations, dissociation and hyper-vigilance in ways not seen with interracial trauma. When traumatic events happen within APIDA, that breaking of trust significantly harms us.
Historically, the United States has always looked past APIDA mental health struggles, treating APIDA the same as white Americans when conducting research. Decades of empirically based practices and treatments fail to remedy the disparities in care between culturally diverse APIDA populations. Assuming that treatments for white Americans will transfer neatly to any person of color disregards inherent differences. United States Surgeon General David Satcher showed this in 1999 when he wrote a report demonstrating how Asian American/Pacific Islanders have worse mental health outcomes than white Americans.
Some of those inherent differences are cultural, but for my family, they are also historical. The Vietnam War devastated my family’s homeland. Undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder probably exists from my grandparents down the entire family tree. The deaths of close friends and family members scar the minds of my family, and traditional psychological practices have not accounted for Vietnamese refugees’ and their children’s inherited intergenerational traumas.
It’s unfortunate that, in 2018, the National Institute of Health only directed 0.38 percent of funding toward APIDA research. Considering the important role that research plays in health, the United States must dedicate more resources toward combating and explaining APIDA mental health issues. APIDA have waited long enough for culturally cognizant mental health policies to materialize.
Kenny Le PZ ’25 is from Anaheim, California. He’s a stressed freshman looking to work in public policy, who works for the Center for Asian Pacific American Students (CAPAS).