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Young Asian American Women at High Risk for Mental Health Woes
Among younger women of various ethnicities, Asian American women have the second-highest suicide rate, trailing only Native Americans. Incidences of alcoholism, drug abuse and HIV infection have also been rising rapidly in this demographic group, which includes teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24. The numbers are not much better among Asian American women in the 25-to-34 age range, where suicide is now the third-leading cause of death.
Interestingly, the numbers vary based on country of origin. According to the Archives of Suicide Research, about 17 percent of Asian women born in the United States have contemplated suicide at some point and 6.3 percent have attempted to kill themselves. This is double the number found in the year 2000, so these statistics clearly indicate a growing problem. But among Asian women who emigrated here from other nations, these numbers are much lower: only 8 percent have seriously thought about suicide and just 2.7 percent have attempted it. This suggests a phenomenon unique to Asian-American youth culture and not to Asian culture in general.
While it can be dangerous to take stereotypes too seriously, it is fair to say that as a group, Asian American women are noted for high academic achievement and career success. While one in three Caucasian women has a college degree, for example, one-half of Asian American women have them, and no other female demographic approaches this figure.
Pushing Beyond the Limits
In 2014, a study appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that took an in-depth look at the phenomenon of the high-achieving Asian adolescent. The two researchers responsible for this report, Amy Hsin from Queens College in New York and Yu Xie from the University of Michigan, discovered that neither natural intellect nor higher socioeconomic status explained the success of Asian students. Their scores on intelligence tests weren’t extraordinarily high, and even kids from poor backgrounds tended to do quite well academically.
Hsin and Xie believe cultural factors are decisive. Asian American families and Asian American society in general place a high priority on school performance and make an extraordinary effort to support their kids’ academic endeavors. A strong work ethic is prized, and among the kids themselves, most identify their willingness to put in long hours to improve their grades as the key reason for their success in the classroom.
But with emphasis and dedication comes pressure and anxiety. Expectations for these young people can be incredibly high, and many worry about failure and feel their best efforts won’t be good enough. Parents may not mean to overburden their children with their own hopes and projections, but it can happen anyway, and it seems many young Asian American women are reacting strongly—and negatively—when they feel like they are being pushed to achieve beyond their capabilities.
At Boston University, Help Is Available
At the Boston University School of Social Work, a program has been launched that is specifically designed to help young Asian American women suffering with mental health issues. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the new project is known by the acronym AWARE, which stands for Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment. Group psychotherapy sessions bring young women experiencing the same stresses together to share feelings and disclose inner truths, with cultural, familial and gender factors brought front and center to help participants contextualize their deepest emotional reactions.
This program is not particularly radical or innovative in its approach. But it is an important initiative nonetheless, because Asian Americans historically have had little contact with the psycho-therapeutic professions. More than 70 percent of Asian Americans have never visited a psychiatrist or psychologist, which is about twice the rate of most other ethnic groups.
Stopping the Spiral of Depression and Anxiety
Persistent cultural barriers may make it difficult for Asian American women to ask for help when they first need it, allowing emotional troubles to spiral out of hand from relatively modest beginnings. This new program at Boston University is attempting to confront the problem head on, and if it proves successful, could function as a model for other institutions that are in a position to make a difference.
Ultimately, suicidal thoughts and actions are an outgrowth of ignored or misunderstood mental health problems. Early intervention is vital for young Asian American women who feel overwhelmed and overburdened by their life circumstances, and if there are cultural stigmas preventing the members of this demographic group from asking for assistance when it is needed, they must be acknowledged and addressed.