Mental Health Impacts and Challenges
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are an integral part of the American cultural mosaic, encompassing a wide range of diversity. AAPI communities consist of approximately 50 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages, with connections to Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Hawaiian, and other Asian and Pacific Islander ancestries.
Over 24 million Americans, or 7.3% of the U.S. population, are AAPI; however, about two-thirds of the population identify with their specific ethnicity or country of origin.
Ethnic and community identity is considered a notable protective factor to mental health for many AAPIs. The sense of communal identity, connections, belonging and family bonds is a strong predictor of resilience while facing life’s challenges. In fact, studies have shown that a strong sense of ethnic identity is linked to lower suicide risks and predicts higher resilience in the face of racial discrimination, which is, unfortunately, an issue for many in this population.
On the other hand, second-generation AAPI immigrants can face challenges in cultural identity, struggling to balance their familial ties to traditional cultural values with the pressure to assimilate to mainstream American society. Additionally, an emphasis on community identity can create a strong burden of expectations, which may increase stigma and shame if a person doesn’t meet those expectations.
Barriers To Mental Health Care
AAPIs have the lowest help-seeking rate of any racial/ethnic group, with only 23.3% of AAPI adults with a mental illness receiving treatment in 2019. This is due to the many systemic barriers to accessing mental health care and quality treatment. It may also be driven by stigma and lack of culturally relevant and integrated care that addresses mental health in a more holistic way. These disparities can lead to worsened symptoms and poorer quality of life due to the lack of or delayed treatment.
Over 13 million U.S. residents were born in Asia, representing over 30% of the total foreign-born population in the nation. Overall, 32.6% of AAPI Americans are not fluent in English, and rates of proficiency vary within specific subgroups: 44.8% of Chinese, 20.9 % of Filipinos and 18.7% of Asian Indians are not fluent in English. Additionally, 60% of AAPIs aged 65 years and older have limited English proficiency. The disparity between the high demand and poor availability of linguistically and culturally appropriate mental health service providers is a significant gap in accessing treatment.
Stigma and Shame
According to a recent SAMSHA survey, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, AAPIs are the most likely to quote the following reasons for not receiving mental health treatment:
- Didn’t want others to find out
- Confidentiality concerns
- Fear of neighbors’ negative opinions
Lack of understanding about mental illness and stigma associated with mental health issues can lead to denial or neglect of mental health problems, especially among first-generation AAPI immigrants. The notions of shame and “loss of face” is an important factor in understanding low use of services among AAPI people.
Mental illness has often been considered a weakness or a sign of poor parenting, and a source of shame not only to the individual, but also to the entire household. The desire to protect the family’s reputation can often discourage help-seeking until there is a crisis.
The Model Minority Myth
Asian American communities are burdened with the “model minority” stereotype, a prevalent and misleading assumption that depicts AAPIs as uniformly well-adjusted, attaining more socioeconomic success than other minority groups through strong work ethic, conforming to social norms and excelling academically. The fact is the AAPI community is highly diverse across subgroups in rates of socioeconomic, health and mental health challenges. The social and familial pressure created by this deceptive stereotype can prevent community members from seeking mental health care.
Insufficient Health Insurance Coverage
Concerns over the high cost of mental health care also lead to lower rates in help-seeking and treatment adherence. Some groups within the AAPI community face disparities in coverage — Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) populations have a higher uninsured rate of 9.3%, compared to 6.8% for Asian American communities in 2018.
Some AAPI immigrants may not seek necessary mental health care due to fears of jeopardizing their immigration status or citizenship application process.
Faith and Spirituality
Faith and spirituality have important influences on mental health, especially for the AAPI community where religious diversity is a distinct characteristic, and more people identify as Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or other religious affiliations compared to the U.S. average.
Faith communities often offer a built-in social support system. However, religious communities may perpetuate stigma around mental illness that can delay treatment. For example, characterizing mental illness as divine punishment, bad karma, disturbed flow of life energy or imbalance of basic elements inside the body. This is especially true for AAPI families who turn to their religious leaders first for mental health support.
Alternatives to Treatment
Traditional/non-western medicine or indigenous healing practices, which often emphasize the integration of mind and body in maintaining health and promoting healing, remain popular forms of mental health intervention in some AAPI communities. These practices include, but are not limited to:
- Traditional Chinese medicine
- Ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India)
- Japanese herbal medicine
- Tibetan medicine
- Massage therapy
- Folk nutritional therapy
- Energy healing exercises (such as tai chi and qi gong)
- Guided meditation
- Spiritual healing
Some AAPIs, especially first-generation immigrants, consider traditional/non-western medicine their primary treatment rather than a complementary treatment. This can result in delaying or refraining from seeking mental health care.
Challenges in Research
Insufficient research on AAPI communities often leads to an inaccurate picture of the experience and needs of these communities. Due to the broad diversity of the community overall, and the relatively small population size of specific cultural subgroups, it can be challenging to obtain adequate samples or to generalize the needs of this population.
Despite these challenges, researchers and clinicians have made progress recently in bridging the gap of quality treatment by exploring culturally relevant interventions for AAPI people. An example is the first NIH-funded study that tested a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) adapted for Chinese American people seeking psychotherapy.
Culturally Competent Care
Culturally competent providers understand each person’s values, experiences and personal beliefs, and strive to provide services that support their goals and are aligned with their cultural values. When a person is struggling with their mental health, it is essential to receive quality and culturally competent care in order to improve outcomes.
Given the vast diversity of AAPI groups, culturally competent providers for these communities often show a strong desire to establish a trust-based therapeutic relationship with the individuals they are treating through effective listening and willingness to learn. They may understand and work with individuals to address concerns over medication, such as fear of side effects. A culturally competent provider may also demonstrate knowledge and acknowledgement of “cultural bound syndromes,” such as:
- “Hwa-byung” – Korean syndrome similar to DSM-5 major depression
- “Taijin kyofyusho” – Japanese disorder similar to DSM-5 social phobia
- “Shenjing shuairuo” – Chinese term for neurasthenia
While we recommend seeking help from a mental health professional, a primary care professional can be a great place to start for an initial assessment or to get a referral for a recommended mental health professional.
When meeting with a provider, ask questions to get a sense of their level of cultural sensitivity. Providers expect and welcome questions from their patients since this helps them better understand what is important in their treatment. Here are some questions to ask:
- Have you treated other AAPI people?
- Have you received training in cultural competence or on AAPI mental health?
- How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?
Whether you seek help from a primary care professional or a mental health professional, you should finish your sessions with health professionals feeling heard and respected. You may want to ask yourself:
- Did my provider communicate effectively with me?
- Is my provider willing to integrate my beliefs, practices, identity and cultural background into my treatment plan?
- Did I feel like I was treated with respect and dignity?
- Do I feel like my provider understands and relates well with me?
The relationship and communication between a person and their mental health provider is a key aspect of treatment. It’s very important that a person feels their identity is understood by their provider to receive the best possible support and care.
If finances are preventing you from finding help, contact a local health or mental health clinic or your local government to see what services you qualify for. You can find contact information online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or by calling the National Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).
If you or your loved one does not speak English, or speak it limitedly, you have the right to receive language-access services at institutions that receive funding from the federal government as well as the right to request a trained interpreter and to receive information in your language.
Mental Health Association for Chinese Communities
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) — Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders
ADAA is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through education, practice and research. It has a dedicated webpage on AAPI resources and research information.
Asian American Health Initiative (AAHI)
AAHI is a health and wellness initiative of Maryland’s Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. Its website is available in four Asian languages: Traditional Chinese, Hindi, Korean and Vietnamese.
Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA)
AAPA is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization of Asian American mental health professionals, with the mission of advancing the mental health and well-being of Asian American communities through research, professional practice, education and policy.
Asian Mental Health Collective
A new global non-profit organization with the mission of normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health within the Asian community through projects such as Facebook group, resource library, video web-series and meet-up groups.
Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF)
Founded in 1986, APIAHF influences policy, mobilizes communities, and strengthens programs and organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Asian Pride Project
Asian Pride Project is a nonprofit organization that celebrates the journeys, triumphs and struggles of LGBTQ individuals and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) families and communities through the use of arts — film, video, photography and the written word — as a medium for social justice and advocacy.
Chinese-American Sunshine House
A non-profit organization based in Brooklyn that provides awareness programming and education workshops to Chinese-American families.
Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA)
CAA advocates for systemic change that protects immigrant rights, promotes language diversity, and remedies racial and social injustice.
Each Mind Matters
Mental health support guide for Chinese-American communities.
Empowering queer and trans Asian Pacific Islanders.
Mental Health America
Asian American/Pacific Islander communities and mental health.
Mental Health Association for Chinese Communities (MHACC)
MHACC is a California-based nonprofit organization with a mission of raising awareness of mental health within the Chinese community through advocacy, education, research and support.
MedlinePlus is a free service provided by the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health which presents high-quality, relevant health and wellness information in multiple languages, including about 20 AAPI languages.
National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA)
NAAPIMHA is a nonprofit organization with the mission of promoting the mental health and wellbeing of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA)
NQAPIA is a federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations.
Psychology Today’s directory provides a comprehensive and searchable directory of therapists, psychiatrists and treatment facilities across the U.S. and includes a directory of Asian therapists.
A California-based nonprofit organization providing mental health education, support and advocacy to Vietnamese-American families.
Please note: The resources included here are not endorsed by NAMI, and NAMI is not responsible for the content of or service provided by any of these resources.
NAMI California Conference 2020 Session: Advocating for Mental Health Literacy (MHL) among the Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities
Hear from Community Members
Video: Elaine Peng shares her personal story about her daughter’s mental illness.
Video of Roopa Grewal shares her personal story with Borderline Personality Disorder.
NAMI Blog — AAPI related posts