Challenging the ‘whiteness’ of mental illness
Allie Jaynes
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Immigrants also have to challenge their own culture’s mental health stigma

By Julia Nguyen

This guest post is part of AJ+’s ongoing conversation about mental health, how different communities deal with it, and who’s getting left out of the conversation.

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Julia Nguyen participated in the “People of Color + Mental Illness Photo Project”. Read more about it here.

I’m a first generation Vietnamese-Canadian. My parents are Vietnamese refugees. I was born in Toronto, blissfully separated from the poverty, corruption, and inequality in Vietnam. Like the classic story of many immigrants, my parents came to North America with one dream: to ensure the future generation leads a better life.

Parents are instinctively sacrificial — they’ll do anything to support, protect, and nourish their children. For immigrants, this duty takes on more risks. For them, it’s also fueled by the American dream.

Fundamentally, it’s driven by the need to honor your roots — past, present, and future. These are values that build the foundation of culture in Asia. Children of immigrant parents have an unspoken, vehement duty to succeed — to live a better life than their ancestors and give back.

The model minority

Mainstream media has made people more familiar with the tiger moms and high-expectation Asian fathers. There’s even a show on mainstream television right now called Fresh off the Boat conveying the Asian (and ultimately immigrant) struggle. There are videos all over YouTube conveying the immigrant family experience in an upbeat, made-to-be-viral manner.

It’s rare to see candid portrayals or discussions of the painful experiences. The struggles are euphemized and packaged for public (Western) consumption. After all, Asians are the model minority, right?

One painful experience you don’t get to learn about is mental illness.

Coping in complete silence

I grew up in a chaotic home. I witnessed and experienced abuse. My parents split up at an early age. It was my mother’s full-time job to take care of us, and most of all, attend to the the needs of my autistic brother.

Although things were hard, my mother knew it was far better than being in her homeland. The only thing she had left were her cultural values, which she made sure were instilled in her children. This made her do everything in her power to make sure everyone was taken care of, even if it meant neglecting her own needs.

By extension, it was an attitude I adopted. I saw my parents dealing with forms of depression, anxiety, and addiction in silence. In general, feeding the family, saving money for relatives back home, and making sure children focus on the bigger picture (things like education) are what immigrant parents prioritize.

Children also take on this burden while being sheltered and encouraged to succeed. They don’t take it directly, but they inherit the behaviors and attitudes that manifest from these pressures. I dealt with mental illness in complete silence growing up. I developed rituals in preschool to deal with the anxiety and stress of home life. I stopped talking at the beginning of elementary school.

I didn’t speak up because I didn’t want to be a burden to my family. As a result, I occupied myself with school and academic hobbies. I knew to my peers I was just another studious Asian girl. That felt more safe than showing who I really was. I became obsessed with self-image — having people acknowledge that I was talented and intelligent. At the same time, I felt like an impostor. I had to constantly maintain lies about feeling vulnerable, insecure, and overwhelmed.

‘Just deal with it’

Behind closed doors, the rituals I had developed to cope were consuming my life. They prevented me from leaving the house and taking care of myself. In high school, I spiraled deep into anxiety and depression. I self-harmed. I contemplated suicide on a daily basis. Eventually, I was hospitalized involuntarily, diagnosed with OCD, put on medication, and sent to treatment. The services were limited and I was jumping around them to make the most of the situation.

I didn’t truly benefit from the mental health system, but I am fortunate to have been able to reach out. I would later go on to abuse my medication and make suicide attempts over the years. It was the system itself, but it was also the support network around me that damaged my self-esteem (further perpetuating the stigma). My mom took me to every appointment, fought on the phone over services, and spent sleepless nights making sure I was ok. I’m grateful for that. But along with the rest of my family, she didn’t know how to talk about it (especially during a crisis). The words “crazy” and “mental” were thrown around a lot. Phrases like “stop behaving this way, you’re smarter than this” were said, even from mental health workers. Threats to “send me away again” were also uttered. These discussions were kept in the family. To onlookers, we maintained that things were getting better.

I have relatives to this day who believe that people with mental illnesses are institutionalized and that “normal” people can just “deal with it.” To them, my family was the black sheep that dealt with problems that weren’t “Asian enough.” As a result, I’ve never opened up to them.

Stigma is universal

I don’t know much about what the mental health systems are like in Asia, but I know for sure that the stigma associated with mental illness is universal. Mental illness isn’t understood and perceived in the Asian community overseas (and other immigrant communities) the same way it is in the white community. For everyone, it’s difficult to open up about pain and suffering. Immigrants can’t always afford to do so. They’re balancing multiple cultural expectations and barriers. The model minority stigma, along with other forms of racial stereotyping and tokenism, is preventing communities from addressing their issues from within.

If better mental health was part of the definition of success, then people would be better educated on mental illness. Having a better life would actually mean what it says. There needs to be more diversity in mental health awareness and education. Changes are made when there are voices coming from different directions.

Julia Nguyen is a developer from Toronto studying computer science at the University of Waterloo. She writes and speaks about empathy, diversity, and mental health in STEM. She’s also the creator of if-me.org, an open-source community for sharing mental health experiences.