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The mental health toll of being a 'model minority' in 2020

The mental health toll of being a 'model minority' in 2020

“Especially when you talk about the invisibility of some of their issues, in a sense, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” psychologist Richelle Concepcion said.
Dec. 23, 2020, 2:00 AM PST

By Kimmy Yam

In a year that saw the closing of businesses, skyrocketing unemployment and ongoing hate incidents concurrent with the public health crisis, the severity of Asian Americans’ struggles has been minimized at best or gone unnoticed at worst, experts say.

Many trace the invisibility of the community’s challenges, in part, to the mythical characterization of the racial group as compliant, successful and faring well — tropes that have long obscured the reality of their struggles.

Asian Americans are the racial group least likely to reach out for help. And that fact — coupled with an already existing belief that AAPIs don't struggle — has only exacerbated pandemic-related problems for the community.

The group is roughly three times less likely than whites to seek mental health help. While Asian Americans report fewer mental health conditions than their white counterparts, they are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.

“Especially when you when you talk about the invisibility of some of their issues, in a sense, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Richelle Concepcion, president of the Asian American Psychological Association, told NBC Asian America.

A woman walks out with to-go food from a restaurant in Chinatown in New York on Nov. 15. Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images file

Concepcion explained: “If they see that it's not being discussed in their communities, and then that’s reflected on anything that they see in the mainstream media about which communities are affected, they feel discouraged about raising their voices. It still goes back to not wanting to make waves despite seeing that there are disparities within their community.”

For many Asian Americans, asking for help, despite how difficult this year’s circumstances have been for them, can feel like a mentally insurmountable barrier due to the pressures and expectations that the model minority myth has set, D.J. Ida, executive director of nonprofit National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, said.

Experts say racism might lead to oversight of community's issues

The model minority myth has created external problems that have made assistance that much more difficult. Asian Americans need not look any further than the insufficient financial support they’ve received throughout the pandemic, amid their significant losses throughout the year, to see that, experts say.

For example, in New York City, Asian Americans had a jobless rate of 3.4 percent at the beginning of the pandemic in February. By May, the rate had surged to 25.6 percent, the largest surge among all major racial groups, a study released by nonprofit Asian American Federation revealed.

Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the New York Assembly whose district includes Chinatown, noted that before the pandemic, Asian Americans were already struggling, as the group had the highest poverty rate in the city compared to other groups. Roughly 1 in 4 seniors were living in the poverty. However, a 13-year analysis of the city’s government grants released in 2015 by the Asian American Federation showed that Asian American community organizations had only received just over 1 percent of total spending.

Since then, the ethnic enclave has torpedoed into financial struggle, with the community’s survival hanging in the balance, partly due to the racism that’s spread with the virus.

“Now during the pandemic, even while my Asian American colleagues and I have consistently brought up the need to help Asian American small businesses that were first hit economically — not by the virus itself, but by xenophobia and racism — we received no help and we saw the systemic racism that allowed for the continued oversight,” Niou said.

Joo Han, deputy director of the Asian American Federation, echoed Niou’s claims, saying her organization has witnessed many in the community resort to workforce development programs to seek employment, whether through additional training or connections to employers who can use their skills. But because there’s a high rate of limited English proficiency at 50 percent, these programs “don’t really exist to serve our community.”

“There hasn’t been enough attention paid to what it’s meant to have large swaths of our community suddenly unemployed, whether it’s due to being laid off or having to close their own businesses,” Han said. “Since January, we’ve been in constant conversation with the city about how to effectively support Asian small businesses, many of whom were struggling even prior to the pandemic, and while we are hopeful that these resources are forthcoming, the response has been slow and inadequate. … So much more needs to be done to make sure we’re helping our vulnerable workforce recover.”

Research also showed that Asian American businesses were hit earlier and experienced a deep decline in revenue, but they were less likely to get relief assistance.

Across the country in California, the state with the highest population of Asian Americans, 83 percent of the Asian American labor force with high school degrees or lower filed unemployment insurance claims, according to a UCLA study. But many did not receive the help they needed. Research also showed that Asian American businesses were hit earlier and experienced a deep decline in revenue, but they were less likely to get relief assistance.

“This then ripples down to the workers, who are displaced and jobless,” Paul Ong, a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said. “Some did get unemployment insurance benefits, but too many did not.”

Ong said the model minority myth has “blinded too many public officials to how hard the pandemic has hurt Asian American workers and businesses,” making it so that relief efforts are not reaching these employees and firms.

This invisibility coupled with beliefs many in the community hold about identity being linked to success and failure means seeking help is not common, Ida said. Reaching for help can be interpreted as “airing your dirty laundry,” which is then reflected on the family, she added. The fact that there was such a surge in Asian Americans filing for unemployment shows that the situation had likely gotten so dire, many had no other choice, Ida said.

Concepcion said lack of government intervention combined with cultural resistance to asking for help can lead some Asian Americans to resort to nontraditional tactics like religion or church, for example, for help. Niou said she’s witnessed some in the community turn to dangerous means to make it through the pandemic.

“We know the numbers and see the poverty, yet so few people seek help and services, even now. I have walked around my community talking to small businesses and residents, and so many times I hear stories only after a lot of probing in any circumstance,” Niou said. “I've seen people turn to loan sharks and predatory lenders. I've seen people move into smaller and smaller living situations. I've seen people ride the casino buses for a warm evening because they have no heat.”

Hate incidents could add another layer of shame

Even in contexts where racism is more overt, the model minority myth plagues Asian Americans, as well. Reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate collected 2,583 reports of anti-Asian incidents over a period of roughly five months during the pandemic.

However, when members of the House of Representatives debated a resolution that would condemn such anti-Asian racism, some Republicans opposed the measure, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who has been criticized for potentially endangering Asian Americans by using “China virus” rhetoric himself, calling the legislation “ridiculous.”

"I will promise you this: There is no kitchen in America that thinks this is the priority,” McCarthy said.

Though the resolution passed, 164 Republicans voted against it.

“Because of the lack of awareness of what the issues are, some think, ‘But what's the problem? You guys are all just doing fine,'” Ida said. “So they don't take it seriously, because they don't understand that this model minority myth works against us.”

Ida noted that hate incidents are particularly harmful, as they potentially add another layer of shame to how Asian Americans feel.

“The thing that makes a hate crime really, really dangerous is — it’s not that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's you're being perceived as being the wrong person, all the time, everywhere. … You can't escape,” she said. “That's the shame that the children of people who've been incarcerated for being Japanese Americans, for being seen as immigrants, that's the shame that we bear that we should not have to bear.”

Ida added that when it comes to hate attacks and similarly upsetting issues, Asian Americans may feel pressure to gloss over or ignore the problem to avoid burdening other family members or worrying them, given what they’ve had to go through to make it in America.

“Part of it is the shame issue. But from a psychological standpoint, sometimes we don't want to talk about the problems because, and I see this in younger people who were immigrants or children of immigrants, their parents had worked so hard for them. They don't want to burden their parents by saying,” Ida said. “Because it's a sense of gratitude and it's very, very powerful.”

A need for more representation in mental health

Other more general struggles like grief and social isolation can feel uniquely painful for those in the Asian American community, Han said. There’s a limited knowledge about mental health in the predominantly immigrant community, particularly because of the stigma associated with seeking assistance.

Han said partner organizations have voiced a critical need for mental health care during this time because of the compounded challenges.

“We’re hearing of many people who are struggling due to grief because they’ve lost a loved one, stress because they’ve lost their jobs, anxiety stemming from the anti-Asian violence or depression because of the social isolation — particularly our seniors, many of whom have had virtually no contact with the outside world since March,” she said. “While there’s an elevated need for culturally competent mental health care during this time, there’s little outreach being done in-language to connect people to resources and also limited capacity to actually provide those services.”

Concepcion said more focus should be placed on representation in mental health circles and creating Asian American-specific healing spaces where people can feel comfortable talking about their needs.

“It helps to see somebody who looks like them sharing some other stories that really resonate with them that are reflective of their experiences,” she said.

Ida echoed Concepcion’s thought, noting that because there’s so much emphasis on prioritizing the community in Asian cultures, there can be a lingering perception that self-care is selfish. And particularly during times of need, it’s crucial for people to disentangle that association.

"The pandemic is really like being in a pressure cooker; it just gets heavier and heavier and heavier," she said. "So we need more to have conversations to raise awareness and show, ‘I'm not alone. I don't have to do it myself. I'm not selfish.’ It’s one of the things that we were training people when we do community training. We are so trained to sacrifice for the family, particularly Asian women, that we feel selfish. In order to be really, really good daughter, wife, sister, whatever, take care of yourself so you can take care of others."

She concluded: “It’s not being selfish. It’s being wise.”

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