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Geffen Academy at UCLA

Opinion: The model minority myth impacts mental health stigmatization

You’re having a rough day. It’s raining outside, and the shoes that you just washed last week are soaked in mud. You forgot your homework at home, and just found out that the test on your least favorite subject is next week.

To make matters worse, you just missed your bus ride home and are standing near the bus stop shivering in the rain. And yet, when the stranger standing next to you asks, “How are you?” you still cheerfully respond “I’m good! How are you?”

There is an unsaid societal norm that makes it so one should never respond to this common courtesy with anything other than “I’m good” or “I’m fine.” The idea of someone responding with anything else can be seen as a disturbance to the ebbs and flows of everyday life. By normalizing this single response, answering this simple question has come to a point where it’s automatic and unnatural. 

I believe this answer stems from the apprehension of talking about mental health, which then disperses into common day to day interactions, such as the example above. Although there may be other reasons as to why one might not want to say how they’re feeling, more often than not, there is discomfort in speaking the truth to others, in fear of being judged. Although it seems as though this stigma solely stems from society, it is also deeply rooted in the intersections of multiple facets, such as culture and your upbringing. 

Growing up in an Asian-American household, I’ve learned to endure and deal with my emotions without talking about them to anyone else. This has caused me to bottle up my emotions rather than express them, so I don’t become a burden to anyone.

Talking about mental health concerns is taboo in many Asian cultures, unfortunately leading to many Asians dismissing symptoms of mental disorder. Cultural barriers such as the model minority myth and parental pressure encourage and reinforce this dismissal. 

The model minority myth is a coined term that is used to refer to a minority group deemed as successful in comparison to other minority groups. Although one can perceive the stereotype that Asian-Americans are thought of as the epitome of integration into American culture as flattering, this myth creates a harmful assumption that all Asian Americans have economic stability and academic success.

A dense history of discrimination and prejudice was encapsulated in the term, “model minority” which was coined in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen.

Petersen emphasizes that family structure and the ideals of hard work allowed Asians to overcome the discrimination against them to earn their success in the United States. This glamorization glosses over the pressures and stress rooted within an Asian identity, which isn’t frequently talked about in the media, such as the feelings of self-doubt, depression, anxiety and suicidality. 

The historical context of Asian-Americans in the US has an effect on the demands and expectations that Asian-American parents have for their children. Having suffered numerous years of racism and prejudice, some Asian-American parents reflect their harsh and difficult experiences as immigrants in the US onto their children.

This adds another layer of pressure to their children, especially since their parents have internalized and adopted the model minority myth into their lifestyle. Having this stereotype adopted by one’s own family can be more harmful in some ways than having the stereotype presented by society as it creates the illusion that living up to this false assumption is the correct way to live.

This double pressure presented both by society and family can be a psychological threat to Asian-Americans, who are expected to uphold an endless list of educational, economical and social standards.

From placing the ideas onto their children of needing to have straight A’s and stellar extracurriculars, this parental pressure can be the driving force behind many mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders, which can in turn detriment a child’s development.

On top of all of these problems within the Asian-American community, is the fact that mental health is such a restricted topic, thereby worsening the entire issue. Parents need to alter their approaches, truly communicate with their children, and not impose their interests and expectations so heavily onto their children.

Organizations such as TEEN LINE, Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, The Trevor Project and many others, are great examples of groups of people who are actively making a difference to fight the stigma around mental health.

For example, TEEN LINE is a confidential teenage help hotline, where teens help eachother in crisis. This allows for the caller to better understand and empathize with the listener as they are teens themselves.

Due to quarantine, there are many people out there that feel isolated and would like someone to simply acknowledge and hear them out. It’s important that we look up to these organizations as spaces for us to seek help at and spaces to encourage others to look into. 

I truly believe that it is important that we all start to open up and know that it is okay and not shameful to share our emotions. There will always be people who are afraid of doing so, and it’s up to us to navigate these conversations and encourage others to know that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.

Something I have also learned over the years is that we should never take people for granted, as they could be going through something behind a false happy facade. Now more than ever, it is important to never judge someone, as you never know what is going on beneath the surface.

In order to start breaking this surface and stigma, we all need to step up and normalize having conversations about our true emotions and feelings. This way, there is hope that our next generation will be leading more authentic and healthier lives than ours.