Suicide & Ethnicity: How Asian shame and cultural stigma make Asians prone to suicide in the U.S.

Asian Shame, Race Matters: Candid Conversations on Race & Culture1 comment

Photo by JodyHongFilms on Unsplash

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian-Americans aged 20-24 years old at more than 30%.  White Americans rank second in this age bracket coming in at under 20%.  Among other ethnic groups, Latinos have a 15% chance of suicide and African-Americans have an 8% rate of dying by suicide.

You may ask how culture can play such a pivotal role in this alarming rate?  First off, Asian immigrants to the U.S. bring centuries-old viewpoints on education, mental health, and cultural identity.  First among these is the understanding of cultural Asian shame.  This is the belief that Asians come from traditional collectivist societies that value interdependence over independence.  Consequently, the need to preserve and perpetuate collective honor (i.e. family, ethnicity, society, etc.) is held in highest esteem.  Failing to do so leads to what I’ve coined as “Asian shame”, where one feels they have so disgraced their kin they must hide oneself (i.e. physical and/or emotionally) or rid oneself from society and atone for their actions by suicide (see past blog titled, “Asian shame and suicide”).

In the context of young Asian-Americans, this can present itself in getting grades not acceptable to their parents, being in a romantic relationship with someone the family is against, or more globally speaking, going against parental wishes of any form.  To do so, will often strike terror into the heart of a young Asian as the fear is more than about disappointment as parents have threatened to abandon, ostracize, and/or disown their children.  Even if this is not reality, if the fear or perception is high enough that this could happen is enough to send an Asian person to consider killing themselves.

Secondarily, Asian-Americans are minorities in the U.S. and face untold stories of racism, teasing, bullying that is either condoned by mainstream society or yet to be emphatically condemned.  Consequently, Asian-Americans suffer tremendously in their desire to be known as Americans but instead are often viewed as “perpetual foreigners”.

Finally, the duality of living in the United States with parents or relatives who are bound to collectivist viewpoints while living in a Westernized, individualistic society where one is taught to think for oneself and speak up contradicts the notions espoused by Confucius and other tenets of collectivist cultures.  

In addition, mental health is viewed as a weakness and talking openly about anything emotional (i.e. sadness, disappointments, various life events, etc.) is rarely encouraged.  Stoicism rules while physical touch and verbal affirmation can be seen as coddling.

All this to say, Asian-Americans have a 3 headed monster to slay towards garnering emotional health: mental health, identity, and cultural shame (e.g. erasing the stigma of asking for help, what is one’s identity as a minority in the United States, and the cultural norms of relating to one another within an Asian context).

The alarming rate of suicide among young Asian-Americans should be warning that awareness is needed on numerous fronts (i.e. family, schools, health care providers, and churches) to stem this epidemic.  One outreach attempt is the recent release of Looking for Luke, a film produced to address this issue of suicide as it draws on the life of Luke Tang, a Harvard college student who died by suicide in 2015 among mounting academic and cultural pressure.  

In addition to this film, as an Asian-American therapist specializing in this area I believe creative workshops and other non-threatening means where healers can provide culturally relevant and sensitive workshops is what’s missing in this population as the stigma of traditional counseling creates barriers to helping those start their journey towards growth and healing.  Educational institutions, churches, and other organizations must also be willing to invest time and resources so these Asian-Americans can get the help they deservedly need.

One Comment
  1. […] “Suicide & Ethnicity: How Asian shame and cultural stigma make Asians prone to suicide in the U.S…” By Sam Louie, September 2019. […]

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