While talking about suicide in the United States may bring to mind high-profile cases like the tragic and untimely death of Aaron Schwartz, it turns out that the demographic most likely to end their lives is not who you might expect. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention published their findings from 2004 and 2007 that Asian American women ages 65 and older have the highest suicide rate than any other racial group at 6.5 per 100,000. Another finding from the CDC states that Asian Americans 18 years and older have the second highest percentage of individuals dealing with serious psychological disorder at 1.9%.
So what does all this mean?
The loudest story we often hear is that people in Asian American communities face a lot of social stigma when seeking psychological help, so much so that many don’t get the help they need at all.
The author of Colorlines’ recent article about the high suicide rate among Asian American women highlights what an assistant clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University says about traditional Chinese culture. Chinese tradition, which values family honor, has meant that individuals are more often than not left to deal with their mental health issues on their own. There is a tendency for Chinese families to cover up any mental health issues that may exist among their family members.
However, focusing on the attitudes Asian American communities have toward those with psychological disorders only achieves to further alienate this ethnic group from the rest of the U.S. population. The narrative forwards the idea that this issue is something for the Asian American community to figure out. They just have to be more accepting and change their cultural norms!
While social stigma may prevent many Asian Americans from seeking help, it isn’t the only factor that may contribute to such a high suicide rate. According to a 2010 study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health, financial, physical and communication were listed alongside cultural attitudes as major barriers Asian Americans face when accessing health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that Southeast Asian refugees are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder 70% of the time, and that Asian Americans coming from lower levels of income are at higher risk for serious psychological distress.
In his New York Magazine article “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang raises questions regarding Asian stereotypes as model minorities, stellar test-takers, tiger moms and tiger children. One of the points of his article is that despite all the press Asian Americans get for being high-achievers, they are nowhere to be seen in the upper echelons of society — the famous and rich, CEOs, writers, and entertainers. He uses the term “bamboo ceiling” to describe the institutional discrimination and barriers Asian Americans face in the workplace.
But what about the discrimination against, the absolute invisibility of Asian Americans on the other end of the spectrum? The Asian refugees, the homeless, the poor, the Asian women who were shipped over to the U.S. as prostitutes?
The issue is that because Asian Americans are viewed as model minorities, the experiences of Asian Americans from underprivileged backgrounds don't get visibility, and thus don’t receive the attention and assistance they need for addressing issues of poverty, physical and language barriers that preclude them from receiving necessary health care. Asian Americans are caught in a double bind. They are invisible wherever they may fall in the spectrum of wealth and poverty, dead or alive.