Young Asian American Women: Under Double Pressure

by kristy soyeon kim

It is normal for people to have a bad day and feel anxious, sad, or fearful, but when these feelings persist for more than two weeks and begin to dominate your life, it becomes depression. When I found out that Asian American women ages 15 to 24 have the highest suicide rate among women of any race or ethnic group in that age group, I recalled the day when my Korean American friend gave me a tour of the UC Berkeley campus.

When we arrived at the campanile, I enthusiastically took some pictures and asked if we could go up to the top. My friend, however, said, “You’d better not go up. I heard that students jump from
the top every year.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Who knows? Maybe because of stress from all the school work? Evans is infamous for suicide too. School authorities try to cover up the incidents, but it happens a lot.”

At the time, it seemed to me like an advance warning: Berkeley life won’t always be rosy. Be prepared!

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Asian American women have the highest suicide rate among all women ages 15 to 24. Nearly 1,100 total suicides will occur on college campuses in America this year. Additionally, many more students will contemplate suicide and even go so far as to plan for it. In the past 50 years, the suicide rate for ages 15 to 24
has increased more than 200 percent. About 12 people in that age group will commit suicide today – that is one about every two hours.

Eliza Noh, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at CSU Fullerton, is familiar with those sobering statistics. Noh’s sister suffered from serious depression and killed herself in college. After her sister’s death, Noh spent much of her professional life studying depression and suicide among Asian American women.

Why is suicide the second leading cause of death for Asian American women in that age range?

There are many complex reasons why young Asian American women have one of the highest suicide rates. First, Asian American college students in their twenties often deal with major academic pressures. After getting accepted into college, they are expected to excel academically so that they can ultimately land a professional job that guarantees money and stability.

“The model minority pressure is a huge factor,” said Noh, who studied 41 Asian American women who had attempted or contemplated suicide.

“Sometimes it’s very overt – parents say, ‘You must choose this major or this type of job’ or ‘You should not bring home As and Bs, only As.”

Psychology studies have shown that women suffer from depression at higher rates than men. Dr. Dung Ngo, a psychologist at Baylor University in Texas, explains how gender issues combine with ethnic issues to put a twofold pressure on young Asian American women. According to Dr. Ngo,
girls are more subject to family pressure than boys.

“When I go talk to high school students and ask them if they experience pressure, the majority who raised their hands were the girls,” said Dr. Ngo. Asian American parents, he says, are stricter with girls than boys.

“The cultural expectations are that Asian women don’t have that kind of freedom to hang out, to go out with friends, to do the kinds of things most teenagers growing up want to do. In addition, Asian American girls are under pressure to be the perfect mothers and daughters and wives as well. They are often expected to be super moms in their near future who would be dedicated to their family and work a full time job at the same time.”

Finally, fear of seeing a therapist can prevent many depressed Asian Americans from receiving
help in time. Why are Asians less likely to seek therapy? Stanley Sue, a professor of Psychology and Asian American Studies at UC Davis, has studied suicide rates among Asian Americans.

Sue told Time magazine in 2008 that “Asian Americans are less likely than other groups to rely
on mental health services, according to studies.”

According to her explanation, the reason is some services are very insensitive to the language and cultural nuances of various Asian groups, which is a major problem. In addition, in the Asian American community, a stigma is often attached to any discussion of personal problems. Seeking counseling can be seen as a public admission of a mental disorder.

John Fong, interim director of Asian Community Mental Health Services in Oakland, said, “Many young Asian Americans fail to get help, even when they are referred for counseling. Even the younger generation, which might be more Americanized, inherits the idea that if you or anyone in your family is seeing a therapist, the whole community is going to look down on you.”

A significant number of the high school students referred to the Oakland organization – by a parent, teacher or counselor – don’t show up for their appointments. In addition, a 2005 Asian
American Psychological Association study on the use of counseling services by university students of color showed that when Asian Americans do come in for counseling, they show a higher level of psychological distress compared to other groups. This is likely due to their reluctance to meet with a counselor. And Asian Americans spent the least amount of time in treatment – two sessions, on average – relative to other groups. In my opinion, these studies demonstrate the necessity to develop more “culturally competent” mental health services.

What can we do to prevent suicide due to depression in young Asian American women? I think the school should stop avoiding suicide issues on campus and take the initiative to help students who are in need. There are many students struggling with depression who cannot turn to their family, friends or therapists for help. If colleges provide a platform for young Asian American
women to talk about depression in a natural setting, they might be more willing to ask for help.

For instance, at Cornell University, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims between 1996 and 2006 were Asian or Asian American. That picture is not complete unless you consider that Asians make up only 14 percent of the total Cornell student body. Cornell was so concerned that in 2002 it formed a special Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force to look into the reason behind the high number of suicides.

The university convened a mental health and welfare council and, to foster a sense of community, created a team of administrators, campus police, residence life staff and counselors who met weekly to discuss signs of student distress. The counseling center also trained faculty and staff – from custodians to department secretaries – to recognize and report worrisome student behavior. Statistics suggest Cornell’s program is working. Several years since these initiatives began, Cornell has not had a single suicide on the campus.

The fun parts of spring semester, such as spring break and Cal Day, have already passed. Finals and papers are creeping in. This is the time to realize that college life is not easy. Our remaining school days will be full of deadlines. However, don’t be afraid, you are not alone! We are all in
the same boat!

Remember, even though you feel stressed out, you do not have to let negative emotions overwhelm you and make you spiral into depression. Try your best to maintain a positive mindset and, if it doesn’t work, do not hesitate to ask for help from those around you. If you feel uncomfortable speaking your mind to the people close to you, get some support from professional services.

Students facing depression or contemplating suicide should call:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

Asian LifeNet Hotline
Help is available 24 hours a day. Languages
offered include: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Fujianese.