Suicide to Americans is viewed through a Western world prism as a stigma. Yet, historically in many Asian cultures, suicide has longstanding roots as the supreme act of honor or atonement of personal disgrace. Instead of being cast as weak, needy, unsuccessful or a failure, taking one’s life can be seen as preserving a family’s sense of dignity.
Not surprisingly, this view of suicide as a means to preserve a family and culture’s honor still permeates today in Asia and here in the U.S. Taking one’s life is seen as an honorable way of atoning for public disgrace and expression of one’s deep sense of shame for struggling with any personal problems.
Just recently, 14-year-old Vietnamese student David Phan went to school in Taylorsville, Utah and shot himself in front of schoolmates on Nov. 29, 2012. His classmates said he was a sweet ninth grader who endured relentless bullying at school because of his race.
“David was an outstanding son, but he shielded his parents from the horror and negative experiences he was facing at Bennion Junior High,” Thanh-Tung Than-Trong, a cousin of Phan told one Salt Lake City reporter last month.
A 2009 study from the U.S. Department of Education reports that Asian and Pacific Americans face the highest rate of classroom bullying — nearly 20 percent more than any other ethnic group. They’re also 10 percent more likely than other groups to be bullied off school grounds. In Phan’s case, he wanted to protect his family and not share his concerns with his Vietnamese parents, possibly leading to his depression.
Depression — or a sense of hopelessness — is a taboo topic rarely discussed among Asian circles. In my work with male clients — Asian or otherwise — I’ve quickly come to learn how so many men grew up with few trustworthy people they could share their concerns and worries with. They were simply told to “stop crying” or to “grow up,” leading to more feelings of isolation and withdrawal.
As adults, Asian Americans become prime candidates for suicide after building a pattern of relational isolation, distrust and cultural shame. And Asian Americans outrank Caucasians when it comes to suicide. According to the American Psychological Association, U.S.-born Asian-American women had a higher lifetime rate of suicidal thoughts than the general U.S. population. Among Asian-American adults, those 18 to 34 had the highest rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts compared to other age groups. In addition, Asian-American college students were more likely than White American students to think about and attempt suicide.
Another contributor to the high suicide rate among Asian Americans is when self-esteem is predicated on performance. The cultural pressure to “succeed” from the Asian mindset is immense when one’s sense of worth is derived from the Asian community by grades, honors, finances, careers or relationship status (i.e. happily married with kids). It’s no wonder Asian Americans face daunting challenges within the sphere of emotional health.
Asian culture plays a significant role for the shame bind we place each other in. As a community, we perpetuate this when we create what I call a “culture of silence” by not allowing each other to voice real concerns we have with one another.
Asian families must break this cycle by finding worth in their children and in each other despite challenges, disappointments or “shame-filled” events — or the ramifications of silence and suicide will remain. The shame of being weak, flawed, or feeling insignificant or worthless are common themes that can drive many people to depression and suicide.
We must learn to embrace our personal challenges and give safe space for people to share that with us. Allowing therapy clients space, time and attention to share their soul’s longings, disappointments and heartbreaks is more than just one-sided sharing. It’s a relationship where the client can be known at the deepest level and still feel validated, cherished and worthy of respect and dignity, regardless of their behaviors or what he or she has endured.
I knew of one Asian-American woman who had a nervous breakdown and struggled with bouts of depression when she applied to graduate school at Stanford and was rejected. The rejection was more than personal, it had filial and cultural implications. Her parents saw her as “less than” and treated her as such.
In her case, she was able to seek therapy to help her still feel valuable to prevent self-harm. In other instances, the shame of being open and transparent outside of counseling doors is too risky, so many Asians continue to struggle in shame without reaching out to community members.
As Asians, we may shy away from these topics for fear of being criticized, judged or seen as inferior. But issues that aren’t discussed or treated in our “culture of silence” will manifest itself in negative consequences, not just today, but also in future generations to come.