Stereotypes and unrealistic expectations may be harmful to our mental health, according to a new study by a team of Asian American researchers at Texas A&M University.

The researchers studied stereotypical and cultural influence on Houston’s Chinese American immigrant population. The team found that 40 percent of Chinese American adolescents reported symptoms that would signify clinical depression, a rate higher than expected. But, those who reported clinical levels of depression were less likely to seek therapy than their white counterparts.

Lead researcher Jeffrey Liew, an associate professor of learning sciences, believes that the ‘model minority’ stereotype may be one of the factors contributing to the problem. Statistics based on high school grade point averages and standardized tests indicate that Asian Americans as a group often represent the highest proportion of high academic achievers, in relation to other U.S. minority groups. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that poverty increased for every race group in the country in 2011, except Asians. And the “tiger mom” phenomenon has convinced many that Asian students are better equipped for academic performance than other groups, thanks in large part to traditional parenting styles.

But how does the model minority stereotype affect mental health? And what can parents, counselors and other mental health professionals do to help address these problems?

“The ‘model minority’ stereotype ignores the fact that the Asian American population is highly heterogeneous and many are underperforming, undereducated and have low socioeconomic status,” said Liew. “This stereotype creates extreme pressures to achieve academically, which potentially harms Asian American youth by placing them at risk for mental health and adjustment problems.”

One way these perceptions influence the stigma many Asians hold against mental illness and therapy is that APIs’ reputation for high academic performance and career success is a point of pride, and carrying out those achievements is a sign of high status within the family and the community. Falling outside of those images of model students or children can result in an enormous amount of pressure. The easiest way of dealing with those feelings is covering them up.

“If parents think their children have mental health problems, you want to be supportive, accepting, and don’t criticize or blame them for what they’re going through. You want to show your support and love for your child,” said Yoon Joo Han, behavioral health program director at Asian Counseling and Referral Service. “Parents also need to be educated about mental health issues, and learn what they can do, because they can contribute in a positive way. A big part of that is re-examining their expectations for their child. What is it that they really want for their child—Harvard, or to be happy?”

The Texas A&M research team also found that Chinese parents and their children often experience a wide cultural gap between the generations. Adolescents will be more willing to adopt new cultural values and practices, while parents and grandparents fight hard to retain old ones. Because of this, youth from immigrant families often find themselves living two different lives, one in school and one at home. When the generation and cultural gap becomes too wide, it can put a strain on the parent-child relationship, and lead children to believe that their family “doesn’t understand them.” While this is certainly an experience that occurs in every family, the gap between immigrant parents and their children can be particularly pronounced.

“The findings in both studies highlight a need for mental health care for Chinese American youth, particularly when those who may need services most are least willing to seek help,” said Liew. “Mental health and school professionals who work with culturally diverse families need to be aware of the stereotypes and parent-child dynamic of immigrant families, so they can better see them for who they are rather than their stereotypes.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots mental health advocacy non-profit has launched a Multicultural Action Center, which has identified a number of barriers unique to APIs when seeking mental health services in their communities, including stigma, lack of access to care, language challenges and lack of culturally and linguistically responsive providers.

“Maybe the mental health care model is not the only way that we should approach mental health,” says Dr. Eliza Noh, a professor of Asian American studies at California State University in Fullerton who has studied mental health issues, particularly in Asian American women, in her professional career. “Maybe there should be more grassroots approaches, maybe looking at what the communities are doing—what do they need, what do they want, what do they believe?”

For more information on NAMI, go to www.nami.org/aapi.

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