Campaign counters depression stigma among Asian Americans


So you’re Asian American and you’re depressed. You suffer from insomnia and stomachache – symptoms frequently associated with depression.

But heaven forbid you want to seek the help of a mental health caregiver. As a member of the “model minority” community in the United States, would that not diminish your standing in the eyes of other Asians, perhaps even among your own friends and family members?

The pressure to live up to the model minority myth, sometimes coupled with cultural and language barriers, is driving scores of Asian and Pacific Islanders, one of the fastest growing ethnic communities in the United States, into depression and even suicide. Sadly, according to recent studies, they are the least likely to utilize mental health services among other ethnic communities.

“The stigma is so great,” observed Sylvia X. Bhatia, a Chinese American woman and one of seven founders of the San Francisco Bay Area online campaign, “It’s Ok,” launched May 10.

The goal of the public awareness campaign is to send the message that it’s OK to seek help for depression, and it connects people to mental health providers focused on serving Asian Americans.

In 2010, the State of California and the City and County of San Francisco declared that May 10 each year would be observed as Asian Pacific American Mental Health Day.

Mental health experts say mental illness in the Asian community is more severe than ever before. Asian-American women, for example, have the highest rate of suicide among women 65 and older and the second-highest rate for women between 15 and 24, according to a 2003 national study by the Ford Foundation. And Chinese immigrants have a depression prevalence rate of 34 percent, compared with 9 percent in the general population, based on a 2006 study by Asian American Family Services.

For many Asians, talking about emotional problems is socially and culturally unacceptable. They believe the stigma will shame their family and make them appear weak. Additionally, mental illness is a Western concept that some Asians do not fully understand. In some Asian languages, there is no term for mental illness, according to Dr. Russell A. Lim, a professor at UC Davis, whose clinical focus is trans-cultural and community psychiatry.

Bhatia hopes the “It’s Ok” campaign will draw Asians out of their silence and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.

“We want to provide a safe forum where they can share their stories and not feel ostracized,” she said. “Hopefully, that will start the conversation.”

The campaign hopes to leverage the power of social media and connect those seeking help with one another and to the many resources available to them.

Right now, “those resources are underutilized,” Bhatia said.

Some of the organizations that will provide services include:

• Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center
• Family Service Agency of San Francisco
• Asian Americans for Community Involvement
• Chinese-American Family Alliance for Mental Health
• RAMS, Inc. (Richmond Area Multi-Services, Inc.)
• Asian Community Mental Health Services
• Community Health for Asian Americans

The “It’s Ok” campaign will initially focus on the San Francisco Bay Area, “but there’s room for growth,” Bhatia asserted.

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