March 11, 2005

Counselor Discusses Asian Mental Health

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Cornell Minds Matter, a new student group focusing on mental health issues on campus, organized a lecture by Wai Kwong Wong, Ph.D. of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), to address mental health concerns in the Cornell Asian community yesterday.

The lecture, entitled “Breaking the Silence,” focused on encouraging members of the Asian community to seek help and talk about mental health concerns.

Laura Alves ’07, a member of the Cornell Minds Matter executive board, decided to organize the event, because “the stats [on Asian American mental health issues] we got were daunting, and I thought, we should have a forum to make Asian students aware that these problems exist.”

According to Wong, Asian students at Cornell commit 50 percent of completed student suicides, even though they make up only 17 percent of the entire Cornell population. Asian students are also most likely to report problems with stress, sleep, sexually or physically abusive relationships and hopelessness. Asian students are least likely to utilize CAPS, and when they do, they are often very reluctant, referred by a faculty member and visit only a few times.

Wong said, “So what’s wrong with these guys? Isn’t everyone at Cornell stressed?” He discussed stereotypes, such as: Asians are all good at math and science, they can fix your computer, and they’re very self-reliant.

He even offered up an anecdote: he walked into his high school English class one day, looking glum, and his English teacher, the now-famous Frank McCourt — author of Angela’s Ashes — asked, “What’s wrong?” Wong replied, “I think I just failed my math test,” and McCourt responded, “You can’t fail math, you’re Chinese!”

While he had the audience chuckling, Wong reminded listeners that these stereotypes comprise a part of the stigma that discourages Asian students from seeking help. There have been cases in which Asians have received differential treatment, for example, a T.A. grading an Asian’s problem set harsher than a non-Asian peer’s.

He said that they also often experience resentment. For example, a non-Asian might walk into a class full of 30 Asian students on the first day and think, “there goes the curve.” The stigma that Asians are self-reliant, “problem-free” geniuses creates a huge barrier. Not only do they feel the need to identify and live up to the stereotypes, but others expect them to as well.

Wong outlined two major developmental concerns that often contribute to Asian mental health issues. The first is identity; how you see yourself versus what other people — family, friends, professors — expect you to be.

The second concern, he said, is purpose. Many Asians associate success with academic and economic achievement, which is fueled by family expectations.

“Definitely we have a lot of family issues, me being Chinese American,” Darleen Chien ’05 said. These family pressures can be generational and cultural conflicts, which cause stress because individual wishes are subordinate to family wishes.

Alves said that, “Everyone knows [the family issue] exists, but we don’t talk about it. It’s so common in the Asian community; everyone experiences it.”

There is an emphasis in Asian culture to avoid problems, the “don’t think about it” approach. Wong highlighted an example from his own life about a lack of communication in his family. While composing a family history in graduate school, Wong discovered that he had a brother who committed suicide. He never knew about it because he was very young at the time and neither his parents nor his older sister ever talked about it. All the pictures of his brother were removed from the family photo albums.

Wong refers to the stigma of shame as a “corrosive emotion, you feel bad for feeling bad … it’s a vicious cycle.”

Rahul Banerji ’07, president of Cornell Minds Matter, delved further into the idea of shame, admitting that he took a leave of absence for bipolar disorder and said, “I was so ashamed and couldn’t even face my family. I didn’t come back for three years. These are issues we should be talking about, breaking the silence.”

Wong concluded that people need to recognize this “conceptual invisibility,” meaning that, even though Asians are highly visible on campus, they’re also ignored.

Banerji was “glad [Wong] spoke about what changes we can implement to foster discussion about this, revealing effective ways that will change the situation.”

According to Wong, it’s all about overcoming the “conspiracy of silence,” and remembering that seeking help is a sign of strength.

Archived article by Laura Harder
Sun Contributor