Mama & Baba, We Need to Talk: Mental Health Stigma Across Generations
Updated: May 2
Content Warning: suicide, depression
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.
Following a devastating student suicide at my university, neither of my parents (who are separated) had reached out to ask me how I was doing. When I messaged the news to our family group chat, my older sister had immediately checked in over text. My teenage brother called me a few hours later, but my mom and dad stayed silent.
A week passed and my parents still did not acknowledge the tragedy.
A memorial to Rachel Shaw-Rosenbaum, a first-year student at Yale who died by suicide in March 2021, photo courtesy of the author
I called my mom a few days ago and the suicide was still in the back of my mind. It’d resurface along with the accumulating images of anti-Asian attacks and murders. One morning, as I passed by a patch of daffodils, I began to cry. I thought of the people who would never again see flowers. Never feel rain. Never smell spring. I was surrounded by yellow blooms of life, but I felt enclosed by death, suffocated by my inability to make it stop.
I shared these feelings with my mom on Facetime. By this point, I had spent enough time talking to my friends to feel better equipped to cope with these tragedies on my own. She listened intently and, after a pause, she apologized. She said she had wanted to comfort me as soon as the news came out—but she had no idea what to say. Even now, she was afraid she’d say the wrong thing.
My Chinese American parents do not know how to talk about mental illness. But what I realized on that call was that I, too, do not know how to talk about mental illness with my parents.
When the university first released information regarding my classmate’s suicide, my peers had reached for their moms or dads. I turned to my friends, my professors, and my siblings instead. I had no expectation for my parents to properly care for me at that moment. After many years of not discussing mental health, I have learned to expect their silence.
My Chinese American parents do not know how to talk about mental illness, but that does not mean they love me any less.
Throughout their lifetimes, my mother and father have experienced their fair share of tragedies. Never have they turned to me—nor anyone else for that matter—for support. I know little about how my father survived the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I know even less about how my mother endured rural poverty in China. My mom and dad do not use the word “trauma” to describe their experiences although, medically, that is exactly what it is. When I ask my parents about their past lives, they tell me, “What’s the point of bringing it back?”
Despite what immigrants may want to believe about themselves, my parents' struggles were not confined to the past. Like many migrants, my parents have missed funerals for loved ones and family members overseas. It’s here in America that my father battles his cancer and my mother navigates their difficult divorce. Medical studies show that depression can be event-triggered, and these are moments in which both of them could have benefitted from therapy, counseling, or an open discussion.
Last week, Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services came under fire for messages posted on their anti-Asian racism resources webpage. In response to rising anti-Asian violence across the country, students were insensitively called upon to “find pride in your community,” “seek out support” and “process your feelings.” A since-deleted portion from the page read:
“When you experience racism, you can feel shame. You may wish that you weren’t Asian, but remember that your ancestors likely went through similar or even worse incidents.”
As the mental health recommendation from the most renowned university in the world, these suggestions were deeply harmful. Rather than making specific commitments to improving or increasing mental health resources during this time, the university placed the burden of anti-Asian hate on struggling students themselves. References to Asian students’ ancestors further reinforced pre-existing stigmas regarding mental health and invalidated their struggles.
Recent updates from Harvard student journalists revealed that the mental health professionals who oversaw the writing of the post were Asian themselves. This update reinforces the central issue—Asian Americans are ill-equipped to address our own mental health concerns.
Mainstream mental health resources and United States institutions fail Asian Americans, but, in many ways, we fail each other too.
According to the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 2.9 million Asian Americans experienced mental illness in 2019. Asian Americans remain the least likely racial group in the United States to seek professional mental health services.
For Chinese Americans, this phenomenon is attributable to multiple complex factors including challenges in accessing insurance and quality health care, lack of culturally and/or linguistically appropriate resources, and family and cultural stigmas.
There is no word for “mental illness” in Chinese. The most common translation is “神经病”, which carries extremely negative connotations. At the time when my parents were growing up, people in China who were struggling with mental illness were either hidden away at home or locked in mental asylums and drugged out of their souls. In order to “save face”, mental illness was considered a private affair. Even within households, family members would conceal mental health struggles from one another in order to “save face”.
Within the Chinese diaspora, there remains tremendous shame, guilt, and fear attached to mental illness and seeking help for emotional distress. I feel it, my parents feel it too. Conflicting cultural values impact our sense of control over our life decisions. Asian American women, in particular, feel responsible yet unable to meet biased and unrealistic standards set by families and society. We must simultaneously be filial daughters, model students, high-earning career women, and impossibly selfless mothers for the next generation. We witness depression in our families but have learned to maintain silence on the subject. These generations of silence are part of why my mom can’t find the right words to discuss mental health with me.
There remain many challenges to improving the Chinese American community’s understanding of mental health. In this struggle, all generations must play a role. Chinese American youth have been involved in movements across the country demanding culturally competent and diverse mental health staff at schools and universities.
First-generation Chinese parents and migrants can contribute as well. Those of us who can vote can advocate for policies that collect robust, disaggregated health data on Asian Americans and affordable access to health insurance. Using culturally competent resources like the ones The WeChat Project has compiled, we can educate ourselves about appropriate ways for thinking about mental health and accessing support.
Each of us can share our own experiences with mental illness and begin to destigmatize mental health struggles. Your story might capture what someone else has been feeling; it may put into words that which someone else might not be able to say. In speaking up, you may be helping your family, your friends, your neighbors.
During that call with my mom, she did not discuss mental health perfectly. But in hearing her speak, the silence we shared began to break.
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This article is part of The WeChat Project, an initiative led by young Chinese Americans committed to bringing progressive perspectives to the Chinese diaspora. You can continue following our work on our website (thewechatproject.org), Facebook (@thewechatproject), Instagram (@thewechatproject), Twitter (@wechat_project), and WeChat (@心声Project).
这篇文章由“心声 (The WeChat Project) ”成员撰写，心声项目由年轻的美国华裔领导，致力于为海外华人传播进步观点。您可以在我们的网站和社交媒体上继续关注我们的工作:thewechatproject.org, Facebook (@thewechatproject), Instagram (@thewechatproject), Twitter (@wechat_project), 和微信 (@心声Project)。