On Thursday night, approximately 25 members of the Yale community gathered at the Asian-American Cultural Center to discuss how mental health is a taboo subject in the Asian-American community.
According to Karen Zheng ’16, an Asian-American Studies co-coordinator at the AACC, the event was intended to be a facilitated discussion on the mental health experiences of Asian-Americans at Yale. The evening featured Dr. Jenn Fang, a postdoc at the Yale School of Medicine who has done personal research on mental illness and blogs for reappropriate.co, the first Asian-American feminist blog. After Fang’s presentation, attendees discussed their own experiences with mental illness and encounters with counseling at Yale.
According to Fang, Asian-Americans report symptoms of depression more frequently than whites, but they are 50 percent less likely to seek help for these symptoms. At Cornell University, where Fang was an undergraduate, 13 out of the 21 suicides that took place between 1996 and 2006 were committed by Asian-Americans, she said.
Still, Fang said people do not talk about this issue often enough.
“It’s hard to find data on our community,” Fang said, adding that there are few scientific studies documenting mental illness in Asian-Americans.
Although Fang does not have academic training in clinical psychology or mental illness, she said these issues affect her personally. Many of her family members suffered from mental illness, and her grandfather killed himself before she was born, she said. More recently, her mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an affliction that Fang said went undiagnosed — and then misdiagnosed as depression — for years.
Fang and all students who spoke at the event agreed there is a culture of silence in the Asian-American community that exacerbates the stigma against both having a mental illness and talking about mental illness.
Fang said the only person with whom her mother is willing to talk to about her sickness is her general practitioner. Fang said she has only spoken with her mother about the illness once, and her mother still has not seen a mental health professional.
Similarly, students at the event who shared their personal stories said it was nearly impossible to talk to their parents about their illnesses and to make them understand.
Students also voiced dissatisfaction with the University’s mental health resources and treatment procedures, telling personal stories of how the University failed to help manage their symptoms. One student mentioned that, despite the fact that half of all Yale students seek mental counseling at some point during their undergraduate careers, the wait time to see a counselor can vary from one to four months. The same student suggested that some counselors see patients not to help them, but rather because they care about their image.
Fang questioned whether Yale’s resources, adequate or not, were relevant to Asian-American students in the community, as the University’s recommendations may not take into account the cultural context of the patient’s issues.
At the end of the discussion, Fang said the situation at Yale sounded worse than she had imagined, especially compared to Cornell’s handling of mental health, where the issue is high priority. She urged students to take action and tell their stories directly to the administration.
“I think it’s important to organize and get students in the room with administrators,” Fang said. “Get them to start acknowledging that this is a problem. That’s already a huge step.”
Zheng said she thinks the event was successful, both in contributing to the conversation about mental health at Yale and in relating discussions of the topic to the Asian American community. Zheng said she feels strongly about mental health, adding that it affects the Asian-American community in particular because of the tendency toward self-concealment and the cultural stigma against seeking help.
AACC Director and Assistant Dean of Yale College Saveena Dhall said the center hosted this discussion and other similar events in order to help students de-stress and talk about a subject that is not frequently addressed.
“[We’re] invested in making sure we’re providing spaces and conversation opportunities with various events,” Dhall said in an email. “Furthermore, in recent years, students have been more open to having conversations about how it impacts their lives, ways we can offer support, and how to normalize these conversations within our community and in general.”
Andrew Chun ’15, a peer liaison for the AACC who attended the event, said he thinks these discussions are important because Asian-Americans face a lot of risk factors for mental illness, such as low socioeconomic status, discrimination, language barriers with parents and familial pressure to succeed. However, he said he is optimistic because the community attitude toward mental illness seems to be changing.
“Something that’s really encouraging is how many Asian-American students speak with their parents about mental health illnesses and seeing their parents respond with understanding,” Chun said in an email. “As a society, we’re growing to accept these disorders as products of genetics and external forces, not as signs of weakness.”
Earlier this academic year, Fang gave talks on the topic of mental health at the Intercollegiate Taiwanese-American Students Association 2014 East Coast Conference and at the AACC.