Today I have my dear friend Lyla on the blog to talk about the intersections of mental health and Asian American identity in a post that I found to be incredibly eye-opening and impactful. Welcome, Lyla, who you can find on Twitter or her website!
CW: depression and suicide
I lost a friend last year.
I hadn’t seen Sarah—not her real name but let’s just call her that—since high school so I wasn’t sure if I even had the right to feel sad about it, and I wasn’t sure why I felt so deeply about someone I hadn’t spoken to in four years. Since I went to college out of state (while most of my friends, like her, stayed in Texas), I’d long accepted the fact that Facebook would be the only way I’d keep in contact with most of my childhood friends. And even then, although I liked and commented on Sarah’s posts, I never felt compelled to reach out and message her to ask how she was doing because—from what I could see anyway—she was doing really well.
But then, suddenly, she wasn’t there anymore. Well, her Facebook was—is—still there (a rather morbid byproduct of our modern age), but she ended her own life last July.
When I read her obituary page, I realized why I was affected so much by her death. It was because she, as an Asian American student that fit the stereotype of the “model-minority overachiever,” fought the same silent, secret battle with mental illness that I’d been fighting my entire life.
One of my most memorable moments as a Psychology major was when I encountered a brief section in my textbook that was solely dedicated to the Asian American stigmas towards mental illness. In that section, the book detailed how Asian patients might not even be aware that anything is wrong with them mentally…and are more likely to seek treatment because of the physical symptoms of mental illness (i.e.: digestive problems related to anxiety, back pain/neck strain because of high levels of stress, and alcoholism/fatigue related to depression.) This, the textbook explained, was because of the great levels of stigma that Asian cultures had towards mental illness. According to many Asian Americans, mental illness was something to be ashamed of and not a viable reason to see a doctor, while physical illness was.
Since Psychology is (in the US, at least) primarily a “white-people” dominated field, my first gut instinct was that the book was being racist. OF COURSE people could tell that they were mentally unwell, couldn’t they? Wasn’t saying that Asian Americans weren’t actually aware of their own illness kinda degrading?
But then I thought about my own experiences with my family and friends. Although this number has thankfully changed since then, at the time that I read this textbook, 0% of my family and friends sought professional treatment for mental health. 0%, and yet I’d spent many long nights serving as an informal suicide hotline for several POC (mostly Asian) friends in high school and college, even though I had similar problems myself.
And this all happened because none of us felt like we could turn to anyone else (I’m not even sure we were taught the suicide hotline in high school, and if we were, we never thought we could call it because it seemed like a “white people thing,” and our parents made it clear that mental illness, queerness, etc. were all stuff that “white people made up.”)
After talking with some friends about Sarah’s death, I realized the full extent of this tragic phenomenon. One mutual friend (who’d been Sarah’s roommate in college) said that he lost THREE Asian American friends (including Sarah) in the last year alone. I also saw posts on social media from friends who went to college in different parts of the US grieving the deaths of their friends (all Asian American young adults) that had died due to suicide. This was a real problem, yet no one was talking about it…at least not until after someone died.
For the longest time, I considered becoming a psychologist since I wanted to help spread mental health awareness among the Asian American community. Asian Americans (esp parents and/or those of immigrant background like my family, friends, and their families) are more prone to seek help from other Asian people, so this was an important goal of mine. But then, some personal things happened in the beginning of my senior year of college and I realized that the field wasn’t for me. So I returned to my first and longest love, writing, and began working on the novel that would later on get me my agent.
Today, I keep writing. Although I don’t know if I’ll ever get published, I write about Asian American teens grappling with mental health and/or their queer identities (which is another thing I often felt lost about as a teen). I do this because I not only want to fulfill my lifelong goal of becoming a published writer, but also because I remember the many years I spent reading books about white teens tackling LGBTQ/mental health issues in order to feel less alone, only to feel Othered because of the often racist (whether intentional or not) sentiments towards Asian Americans and other PoC.
Intersectionality isn’t always welcomed in publishing (in all honesty, it’s been an uphill battle so far), but I keep trying to get my books out there because I want them to be there for teens who need books that understand their struggles. So, I write books about Asian American teens learning to love themselves and their queer POC identities. At the expense of being told that “too much is going on” or that “[people] can’t relate” (actual feedback I received from white editors), I write about Asian American teens struggling with mental illness who seek professional help.
The world failed me and other Asian teens so that we felt alone in our struggles, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change for future generations. And I am trying my hardest to be a part of that change.