We Really Need to Talk About Mental Health for Asian American Students

mental health

“Why are you even here?”

“You have been here for three months, and you are already falling behind.”

“Will you ever repay your parents for the sacrifices they made for you?”

It’s my first semester in college, and these thoughts never fail to leave my mind. My anxiety attacks have become so routine to the point where I can schedule them on my Google Calendar. Half an hour after my anxiety attack in the shower, I call my parents on FaceTime to update them on my life. I smile — like nothing ever happened. As a first-generation, Asian-American student, mental health and academics have been a balancing act my entire life.

Asian-American students are expected to be successful in school, and first-generation students are expected to have grit and a strong work ethic. However, the lawsuit against Harvard for the suicide of Luke Tang and recent death of sophomore Kirk Wu at my school reveal that such stereotypes are harmful.

An article by U.S. News reports that college students are becoming more proactive in addressing their mental health. However, why do Asian students remain the least likely to seek help? I recognize that other cultures have experiences with mental health, but it is striking that Asian students don’t seek help as much as their peers.

In reality, many cultural factors affect the mental health of Asian-Americans, preventing them from actively seeking help for mental health. In a traditional Asian household, the family unit holds great importance. Each person has a clear role in this hierarchy. Specifically, if you are a child, you must work hard in school to support your parents when they retire. You must set aside any pain because you cannot neglect the people who raised you. Being a son of Asian immigrants, it is even harder to do so because mental health is not discussed in Asian households. Sons are expected to remain level-headed while handling the most work.

My mom immigrated from Vietnam in the early 90s, and my dad escaped Cambodia one year before the Khmer Rouge came into power. They survived working laborious jobs. My mom worked as a seamstress in sweatshop-like conditions for ten years, and my dad is a delivery driver. As their only son, how else can I show my parents love besides doing well in school? If I want to be a good son, I must repay my parents for the sacrifices they made for my education.

In high school, I did my best to get good grades. I started volunteering projects and played varsity volleyball. I got into a good school, accomplishing the Asian-American immigrant dream. I thought I was ready for college, but I was wrong.

Coming to a university with published poets, national science competition winners, and Division I athletes, I found it hard to establish my own sense of individuality. Whenever I tried new activities — Latin dance, art, the school newspaper — my sense of responsibility to please my parents clashed with my interests. I stopped pursuing these interests to focus on my pre-medical courses, but do I really want to be a doctor like my parents want?

I realized everything I achieved was to honor my parents, but what about for myself? Often, my identity mixed with my parents’, leaving me in a confused mess. During midterm season, I grew the most anxious. When I heard that Kirk Wu passed away at my school, his story struck too close to home.

After reading his tribute in our school newspaper, I thought I would be the next headline. I called my friends for comfort and found support in my friends and school community. Slowly, I scheduled appointments with a school therapist. I decided that I will not be part of the stigma that mental health should be hidden in Asian communities. I must honor the lives of these Asian students to let them know that they did not die in vain. I must continue opening the dialogue for mental health in Asian students — on and outside of campus.

Recently, I FaceTime called my parents again. This time I opened up to them for the first time in a while. I told them how nervous I was about next semester. I told them how unsure I was about my career choices. I told them how incompetent I felt. Surprisingly, my dad told me in broken English, “Do not worry. Take your time, you always find more opportunity later on. Stay focused and study. You come home for Christmas soon. Mama and I are proud of you going to college for us.”

After hanging up, I cried. My mental health has been better, knowing that my parents support me. We often forget that our parents are still our parents, and they still love us. I cannot say that my experience will be helpful to other Asian-American students struggling with mental health. However, I hope other students know that they are not alone in their struggle with mental health. The amount of cultural expectations may feel overwhelming. However, our generation should not surrender to these expectations. By becoming more active in managing our own mental health, we can break the negative stigma of mental health in Asian cultures. To my fellow brothers and sisters in college reading this who feel like they are not doing well enough, I want to let you know that you are not alone and I am proud of you. You are amazing, and I hope you realize that, too.

Stay strong.  

About the Author: Thomas Ngo is a prospective sustainable development student at Columbia University who loves hip-hop, Pokémon, and any form of hot noodle soup.

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