Legal

The Model Minority Myth is Hurting Asian Americans’ Mental Health

ThinkNow recently fielded a comprehensive quantitative study that compared attitudes and behaviors related to health and wellness among minority groups. After reviewing the survey results, I assumed I would write a blog about mental health issues impacting Black or Hispanic Americans. While there were certainly findings that I could have written about among those groups, the results that really struck me were specific to Asian Americans. The Asian American narrative usually revolves around the model minority myth promoting positive stories about education and financial success. However, mental health in the Asian community does not get as much press. The findings were eye-opening.

Statistically, Asian Americans are doing well collectively when it comes to educational and financial attainment. However, our data shows they lag other ethnic groups in seeking mental health services when needed.

Cultural Barriers

Seeking help for oneself runs contrary to the collectivist ideal in Asian culture of placing the needs of others and society before one’s own. This is true in both East and South Asian cultures. The belief is so ingrained that some segments of the Asian American community, especially the foreign-born, don’t have the language to discuss mental health issues. They, instead, think of mental ailments as a physical condition without considering possible psychosocial origins. The concept of mental health was developed in the U.S. and Europe and mainly used western cultural concepts in diagnosis and treatment. The lack of connection to mental health awareness shows up in the data where most Asian Americans surveyed stated not perceiving mental health as a significant contributor to overall health and well-being.

Even when they recognize they might need help with mental health issues, Asian Americans are less likely to feel comfortable seeking that help.

The Dark Side of The Model Majority Myth

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian American young adults ages 15-24. Asian youth can become overwhelmed by the expectations to succeed. Although the model majority myth may have its origins in Asian immigrants’ desire to succeed in the U.S., it is perpetuated in mainstream culture by teachers, business leaders, comedians, and the media. Asian students may perceive struggling with school pressures as letting both their parents and society down. Without good examples of what self-care looks like, fewer than 20% of Asian Americans know what to do to keep themselves mentally healthy.

Culturally Appropriate Support

Since fewer Asian Americans currently seek mental healthcare compared to other groups, they are less likely to see other people like them in places that could help them, such as student health centers or clinics. This inadvertently confirms their belief that they don’t belong there. Recognizing this disparity is the first step toward creating inviting spaces for Asian Americans to seek mental health services. Language is not as much of an issue for Asian youth but is a real barrier for older, foreign-born groups. Having in-language material and resources available can be lifesaving.

Training healthcare providers to recognize the additional barriers their Asian American patients may be experiencing can also help increase the uptake of services in this demographic group. Healthcare workers must be culturally competent, understanding the nuances impacting their Asian American patients’ decisions.

How We Can All Help

The model minority myth requires society at large to perpetuate it. Reflecting on our beliefs about what a scientist, artist or carpenter looks like can help open more doors for Asian Americans struggling to conform to certain ideals. Also, asking Asian Americans “where they’re from” is still far too common. What seems like an innocent question to get to know one better actually “others” that person for it makes assumptions about what an American should look like.

Finally, normalizing mental healthcare as something everyone in society can benefit from is vital. By sharing our own challenges, we can inspire Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to accept mental healthcare as an integral part of a well-rounded healthcare routine.

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Legal

Let’s Talk About Work and Mental Health

I am co-owner of a successful marketing research company that employs 45 people across the US, India, Ecuador, and Mexico. When I started ThinkNow with my business partner, Mario X. Carrasco, in 2011, I thought I needed to project a certain strength to inspire my employees and give them confidence in our leadership. Back then, most of my social media content focused on the firm’s achievements but very little on personal subjects like work/life balance.

A decade of business ownership and the past two years of the pandemic have taught me that leadership is more than projecting strength. Or rather, what is commonly considered to be strength. Over the years, I’ve found that empathy and vulnerability are in many ways stronger than the “grit” we’ve been conditioned to emulate. I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. I often worked 12-hour days early in my career and sometimes worked 36 hours straight. For the first couple of years after starting my firm, I worked seven days a week without taking a vacation. In retrospect, I see that much of my work was a thinly veiled attempt to run from my emotions.

Let me explain. At age 27, while working at Warner Bros., I lost my 60-year-old father to suicide. I knew he was depressed, so a couple of days before he died, I called him from work to see how he was doing. His response was to ask why I was wasting company time on a personal phone call and that I should get back to work. I wasn’t surprised since I had watched him put work and achievement before his physical and mental health his whole life. I wish I could say that I resolved then and there to put myself first, but the work habits I was taught were too ingrained. I spent the next 20 years burying myself in work to avoid the crippling anxiety I felt when I stopped.

Around four years ago, however, something changed. I was sitting alone in the stands at my daughter’s high school homecoming football game and realized I was intensely lonely. The decades of putting work first while neglecting friends and family had taken their toll. Within a few weeks of that evening, I was in therapy, had joined a men’s group and started making more time for family. I also resolved to bring my whole self to work and encourage my employees to do the same. That means we treat each other as human beings first, co-workers second. If someone has health or family obligations, we work around them. If they’ve experienced a personal tragedy, we create space for them to heal.

Interestingly, treating people like people instead of machines improves the quality of our work. I recently heard Wendy York, the College of Business Dean at Clemson University, summarize this idea as, “If you create a trusting environment, you create an innovative environment, and when you let people come to work as their whole selves they bring all sorts of talents, skills and passions.” We’ve seen this firsthand at ThinkNow. Many of our most successful products and services started as an idea that someone felt safe enough to share. Ideas need space to develop, and we give each other that space by listening to each other’s needs and making room for them. We have employees who work from home, some who live in motor homes and some who travel from country to country. Each of those options is the best for them, so it’s the best one for us.

Roy K

Last month, I took a two-week vacation completely disconnected from e-mail and screens. I spent most of that time in the Peruvian Amazon. That’s not something I would have allowed myself to do four years ago. I did it because I recognized that I needed it. The pandemic has been wearing, and I knew that unless I recharged my batteries, I wouldn’t be able to contribute my whole self at home, with my friends or at work.

As Americans, we often don’t take vacations in fear that the work will suffer. As a business owner, I’m here to say that the work suffers if we don’t take vacations. I want our employees to know that I don’t judge them for taking vacations. It makes me happy to know that someone from my team is in Belize or Italy since I know they’ll be in a better headspace when they return.

These lessons came to me too late to share with my father. Hopefully, putting it out there now and normalizing the fact that we are humans with needs, not “workers,” will help someone turn off their work screens and turn their attention to themselves, friends and loved ones. The work will be there tomorrow. Your physical and mental health, friends and loved ones may not.

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