Saturday, May 19, 2007

Depressed Asians

Probably as a result of both API history month and V Tech, we have news stories reporting on an old statistic. That Asian American women 15-24 are the most likely of any ethnicity in that age group to commit suicide. I say this is an old statistic, I've written about it before. However, it is startling statistic nonetheless. I'm at the very very outside of this age group. So maybe this means it hits a little closer to home for me.

The author of the article Angry Asian Man links to seems to want to put the blame to Asian culture. I thought the prof that they quoted was actually a bit better, in that she admitted that they don't really know for sure. Could be Asian culture, could be the pressure of the model minority stereotype, could be genetic, they don't really know.

There are times when I feel like being the invisible minority is not so bad, given the demonization of other ethnic groups. At least they don't say bad things about us, right? But it's times like these when I feel how much invisibility really hurts us. How many young Asian American women know themselves to be at risk? How many of our well intentioned white mental health practitioners know that Asian American women are at risk?

I don't know that I buy that the the self-imposition of the model minority stereotype is what causes young women to want to kill themselves. Could be those family expectations, but I'm inclined to think that those are a different animal entirely. The model minority stereotype is most pernicious, I think, not among Asian Americans, but among other people. That the quiet Asian kid is quiet, not because there's something wrong, but because that's just the way Asians are.


magniloquence said...

I read that article too (well, skimmed and printed it out anyway). While I tend to find the "oh, blame it on the model minority pressure" arguments a little disingenuous (like Asian Americans don't have problems outside of that stereotype? They aren't ever poor, or gangsters, or illiterate? It's pernicious and intersects with these other problems, but it's by no means the only thing wrong), it does certainly seem relevant in this case.

Actually, let me clarify that. I think the invisible minority problem and the model minority stereotype are connected, but distinct, issues. The model minority myth is an exceptionalist stereotype (they're not just like white people, they're actually better! See, no racism here!), but the fact that Asians are often rendered invisible owes at least as much to other historical and social factors (economic development, specific migratory patterns, length of stay, interethnic conflict, demographic concentration, certain cultural mores) as to the perpetuation of that myth.

That said... they both seem to have a lot to do with why these problems are getting worse, even if they have little to do with the way they're playing out. I don't, for instance, think that the model minority myth is at the root of most of these suicides. People suicide because they're depressed and they can't cope, not because they think they're supposed to be good at math. It's a conflation of proximate causation with ultimate causation. I think, however, that it does impose pressures that make coping harder than it needs to be ("you're smart and rich, what are you whining about?" "you're going to embarrass the family/your race, carrying on like that"), and the invisibility factor adds significantly to that. Not only are people less likely to come forward for treatment, they're more likely to be misdiagnosed or dismissed outright when they do.

That, I think, is what's at the root of this. I think it's unlikely that Asian Americans are much more predisposed to mental health problems and suicide than others. I do think that Asian Americans, particularly young Asian American women, are highly likely to be put in high-stress environments ... in a country with a shitty record on mental health issues in general, and where they're likely to be told they're just making it up for attention (either because they're asian, or they're women, or they're young), or misdiagnosed ("Oh, it's just stress" "Here, have some ritalin... it'll help you concentrate better" "Maybe it's just a cultural difference."), not to mention in contexts where they're unlikely to have others recognize what's wrong with them ("She's just shy" "She's stuck up, that's why she doesn't talk to anyone." "She doesn't do anything but play violin."). I think if you factor all of those things in, you've got a recipie for disaster.

lovelesscynic said...

I'm gradually coming more and more to the opinion that the model minority thing is so huge because it's a huge concern among middle class, northeast Asian Americans.

I really really doubt Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian kids have problems being seen as the model minority.

That said, the statistic itself is pretty disturbing and cannot be denied. I would guess a lot of it rests with the current clinical psychology approaches to dealing with depression and counseling. A lot of those things are specifically constructed with certain assumptions made. Which don't necessarily include Asians, or people of color in general for that matter