The Asian Suicide Phenomenon:

 Addressing The Psychological Weight Of The Familial Mentality

by alex wong

Aokigahara Forest, the 2,400 hectare dense forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji, has become infamous as a favorite suicide spot after mystery writer Seichi Matsumoto described the woodland as ideal for the perfect death. In 1998 alone, the bodies of about 70 people were found in the notorious forest. Today, according to the World Health Organization, Japan’s suicide rate is about 51 per 100,000 people. This is more than twice the rate in the United States (22 per 100,000).

This unnaturally high incidence of suicide is occurring not only in Japan but also in many other East Asian communities around the world as well. Why is the incidence of suicide significantly greater among these Asian demographics than the rest of the world?

The answer may lie in family. Family is the double-edged sword of the Far East: It is the secret to discipline, obedience, and hard work while at the same time it represents the manifestation of ancestral pride, strict expectations, and intolerance for deviation from traditional values. Family is equally a space for familiarity and comfort as it is for social conditioning and stress.

Within the family, taboo topics such as suicide consequently garner a sense of shame, stigma and isolation. Through the vehicle of strict, harsh, or nagging parents, the guilty conscience of not living up to parental expectations is only the tip of the iceberg that is a much greater psychological behemoth. In many traditional Asian cultures, social-cultural dogmas embody a tacit understanding of individual respect and failure as a
reflection of the family unit; these unforgiving mentalities are prone to overwhelming the life of an overstressed, depressed individual who may be considering suicide.

While these cultural beliefs and worldviews have been sustained through generations, how do these forces continue to shape the lives of Asians today?

In Japan, economic downturns have been a catalyst instigating a surge in suicides amongst working men and women. It is no accident that the highest spikes in suicide occur in March, the end of the fiscal year. Signs from the recently launched government campaign informing the public about depression and suicide are beginning to pop up in train cars and stations.1 The reason is because the railway system has been the most popular venue for the growing number of suicides – usually claiming victims on their way to or from work. When financial markers validate family honor and individual worth, how could one possibly save face in the instance of economic tumult?

In China, it is the rural landscape that has sustained the worst of what could be considered a national suicide epidemic. The turbulent political and
economic landscape, combined with the rapid mutation of what was once a longstanding ancient culture, has resulted in a population of rural peasants and farmers struggling to find a new niche. China is the only country where suicides among women outnumber men. The rural female population, which has endured physical, verbal abuse since the beginning of time, has begun to
take their own lives at an alarming rate. The violence towards women in this society is a brutal reflection of long-standing family hierarchies, gender oppression and a refusal to deviate from old traditional values even in the face of an increasingly modern and secular society.

It may seem impossible to attempt to translate such statistics to Asians Americans living in the U.S.; however, similar family tensions often plague Asian Americans in the U.S. According to a new study by UC Davis, Asian Americans whose families experience a high degree of interpersonal conflict have a three-fold greater risk of attempting suicide when compared with
Asian Americans overall.

Currently, the most problematic issue relating to family dynamics among Asian Americans is the relationship between Asian American children and their parents. In America, Asian American children often feel the pressure from their parents when it comes to success in the classroom. When they deviate from the expected career paths of doctor, lawyer or engineer, they are often met with both disapproval and disappointment from their families. Family tensions such as this are possibly a major factor behind suicides among Asian Americans.

Asian Americans, however, are not only affected by tense family relations; they must endure additional challenges unique to the Asian American experience. These include culture shock and both intentional and unintentional structural violence, which are the leading factors contributing toward high incidence and low treatment rates for suicide, depression and mental illness among Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in the U.S.

One example of unintentional structural violence stems from recurring problems with language barriers. A recent Surgeon General’s Report found that nearly one out of two Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) will have difficulty accessing mental health treatment because of language barriers. Studies in the past suggest that language-based discrimination heavily influences patterns of mental health service use among Chinese Americans. At the same time, these language barriers also work to isolate immigrants from participating in mainstream American society – a marginalization that often leads to depression.

Another example of structural violence includes the unequal access to healthcare faced by Asian American immigrants. About 21 percent of AAPIs live without health insurance, compared to 16 percent of all Americans. It has also been suggested that AAPI’s lower Medicaid participation rates are linked to widespread but mistaken concerns among immigrants that applying for Medicaid jeopardizes possibility for citizenship. Moreover, illegal immigrants are specifically targeted by state procedures which make it extremely difficult for them to access healthcare, in order to discourage illegal immigration. The combination of these two barriers to healthcare has resulted in AAPIs’ extremely low utilization of healthcare services relative to other U.S. populations. For example, in the CAPES study (Chinese American Psychiatric Epidemiological Study), only 17 percent of those experiencing psychological problems sought mental healthcare.

Shame and stigma are the underlying factors that deter open dialogue and socially acceptable confrontation of depression and mental illness in many
Asian and Asian American families. As a result, society too often turns a cold shoulder to those in need of support. In America, when this is compounded with the institutional failings that specifically handicap Asian Americans, it is no surprise that the suicide rates among AAPIs are increasing.

But where shall we start? The daunting task of breaking down cultural mindsets? Or should we turn to the power of the state bureaucracy to fumble the issue? The solution may not be a simple one. Let me propose a new initiative, one of awareness and without excuse – I challenge you to not only address the pressures in your own life, both due to familial relations and not, but to extend a new and genuine, conscious compassion towards those who float in and out of your life as an Asian American. Maybe then we can properly address this issue of cultural difference and indifference here in America, as well as back home in the East.