Working to Dispel Stigma Among Asian Americans
Cultural stigma and language barriers result in extremely low utilization of mental health services among Asian Americans (8.6 percent versus nearly 18 percent of general population). But individuals and organizations are working to narrow the gap between the need for services and the use of services. Pata Suyemoto is a Massachusetts-based mental health activist and educator. Mood disorders are present in both of her parents’ families, and she lives with treatment-resistant depression.
How was depression addressed in your own family?
My father, who is Japanese American, did not acknowledge mental health issues in his family, including those with my mother or me. The denial and sense of shame about mental health issues were unavoidable, and I still see that in other Asian Americans today.
What is the key issue and what are you doing to create change among Asian Americans? Despite high rates of mental health issues, Asian Americans are infrequent consumers of mental health services. According to mental health care providers, Asian American women ages 15-24 have a higher rate of suicide than Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos in that age group. Mental health is a problem in our community that is not being acknowledged or addressed. We need to get people talking openly about mental health. I’m committed to breaking the silence around mental health, so I talk with teens, teachers, parents, and others in our community. We need to include clinicians in the conversations, too, and foster their cultural competence. We also have to listen; our younger generation has a lot to say about mental wellness. A local youth group’s photographic documentary project opened a new avenue for conversation about mental health in the Asian American community. I participate in the Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Forum, an ad hoc group in Massachusetts. My collaborator Christina Chan and I present our performance piece, “Breaking Silences: The Play,” which is part of the Breaking Silences Project: Asian American Women Speak Out On Mental Illness. I have made alliances with other people of color as we all work to change our communities’ perceptions and address the violence, shame, and stigma around mental health issues. We have to keep finding different ways to reach people, whether though performance, speaking, social media, or making other connections both within our community and across cultures.
What would you tell mental health providers about interacting with Asian American patients and their families?
Do your homework. Respectfully ask questions. Approach a community leader for information. Don’t assume you know what is appropriate or normal in that person’s culture. No one is expected to know everything, but you need to be open to the idea that your cultural norm is not the same for someone else.
What about approaching treatment issues?
Again, providers can’t assume that people of different cultural backgrounds will embrace Western medicine wholeheartedly. For example, individual therapy may not be a good approach for someone because it is unfamiliar in their culture. Giving consideration to a patient’s preferences to include complementary healing approaches can make a significant difference in that patient’s compliance with the treatment plan.
What’s one thing that will make a positive change in the relationship that Asian Americans have with mental healthcare?
One key to improving Asian Americans’ utilization of mental health services is empowerment: consumers need to have relevant information so they can make educated decisions about accessing and using mental health services. It’s no different than what mental health consumers from other cultures need to do: know how to find providers that meet your needs, don’t be shy about asking questions, and if the person isn’t right for you, move on to another. What’s going to improve care for Asian Americans is going to improve care for everyone.