The statistics are staggering.
Asian Pacific Islander women, aged 15-24, have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. A recent study released by the University of Washington supports that statistic by finding that 15.93 percent of U.S-born API women have contemplated suicide in their lifetime, exceeding national estimates of 13.5 percent for all Americans. Suicide attempts were also higher among API women than the general population, estimated at 6.29 percent vs. 4.6 percent. The question that then emerges is why suicide is particularly high within that demographic.
“First is the stigma around talking about mental health issues, and talking about depression,” says Miriam Yueng, Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum, the nation’s only progressive multi-issue organization advocating for women’s issues. “I think in the API community, there’s even more silence, and because there is this silence, I think everyone, particularly in this case — API women and girls—are left to suffer.”
The experiences of Janet Kang, a young API from Seattle and the daughter of immigrants, support Yueng’s argument.
“It’s not an open topic to discuss in an Asian family,” explains Kang, “so then you’re not too aware of it because your parents don’t tell you much about it.”
Kang, a pseudonym created for this article, described her adolescence being filled with familial pressure to meet high academic expectations in response to a feeling of “burden” in all the sacrifices her parents made to live in this country, such as exchanging esteemed professional positions in their home countries for menial labor employment in this one. But like all adolescents, the often stringent expectations build up over time, especially when combined with intergenerational and intercultural differences.
“We’re so obedient,” Kang said. “We listen to our parents all the time, and then we get drawn into making friends that are so nonchalant and don’t give a sh*t about anything. We tend to lose ourselves a little with this group of friends. When a kid grows up in high school, they change; they encounter things like drugs and then that pressure [from the family] is released by getting involved in all that stuff. Then when they withdrawal from it, they feel sad, and they don’t realize it. It makes them really sad that they feel like they let their parents down.”
For Kang, the guilt only added to her growing frustration. She defined her rollercoaster involvement with the dangers of drug usage and suicide attempts as defiance to cultural expectations.
“When you break loose, you break pretty bad.”
Furthermore, being female in a traditional culture brings pressure and restraint, as certain adolescent behaviors are judged more unfavorably for women than males. These double-standard judgments only become heightened in smaller networks like the API community.
“It’s a different treatment when you’re a female in the family,” said Kang. “You need to be more conservative; it involves a lot of reputation. And because the Asian community is not that big, it’s quicker for them to hear the story through the grapevine. Regardless if the situation is true or not, it still affects you.”
Kang’s personal experiences again support another of Yueng’s theories that traditional patriarchy weaved into an already conservative culture can partially explain the unsettling statistic of suicide among API women. Yueng explains her hypothesis by defining gender roles in API families into three shifts.
“The first shift might be a day job, to bring in money to help support the family,” said Yueng. “The second shift is to take care of the home, to cook, clean and take care of the household. And the third shift is to take care of all the emotional and social needs of the family,” explains Yueng. “We’re always in this place of taking care of others, and I think that allegorically, we tend not to prioritize what we need.”
Ultimately, a disregard to personal needs and an imbalance between familial obligations and self-expression appear central to the issue of suicide in API communities. Kang suggests young women to get involved in extracurricular activities, like sports or clubs, anything “to occupy your mind,” she says. And while micro-levels of personal exploration help alleviate the pressures, both Kang and Yueng believe that a larger shift in the societal perception of suicide as a taboo topic needs to be resolved. The idea is to start talking about the problem in order to find a solution together. Working with Washington treatment providers may also help in this regard.
“I think definitely in terms of policy, we need to be focusing more resources into the API field, particularly empowering API women to opening their communities,” says Yueng. “There’s not a lot of focus on this issue, and it deserves more attention.”