Asian American Mental Health and Illness, May, 2021

“From a very early age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts or behavior tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”

    – Ai Weiwei, Chinese Contemporary Artist and Activist
     (as quoted in: The Botanical Bible, Sonya Patel Ellis, 2018)

When Jim and I were first married, we had three friends of Asian descent. 

Shu (S-h-u) was from Taiwan. Shu was serving an internship with me – I was her perceptor as a practicing registered dietitian; Shu was an intern. Two other friends were a Korean. They  were a married couple, Mr and Mrs Bae.  Jim worked with Mr B.

Shu and Mrs Bae were excellent cooks. Both women were my earliest introduction to the interaction of food, culture, politics and the limitations imposed by authoritarian regimes. Shu was from a rich family. Mr Bae’s family was poor. 

Mr B and his generation were small due to the poor diet imposed on Korea during WWII by the Japanese. In contrast, as a child, Shu C. had all the food she desired to eat. Once her skin turned livid orange from eating so many fruits rich in beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A!

The most tasty, authentic, and intriguing Asian meals Jim and I have had the pleasure to eat were those prepared by Shu and Mrs B in their home and in our home. Mrs B.along with her 1 year old son, lived with us for several months. During that time, we ate …  oh so well. To this day, rice is as frequent at our table as potatoes and pasta.  As we raised our children, we ate with chopsticks, every dinner. And Jim and I still eat with chopsticks. Eating with chopsticks is aesthetically pleasing. Chopsticks are quiet and clean. There is no clanging of silverware during conversations.  We use Korean/Japanese sculptured chopsticks.

Ah, you did not know there were different types of chopsticks? And many varieties of rice?

Do you know that Asian people do not all look alike? They do not!

Everyperson, everywhere is unique. 

I am thankful for our uniqueness.

I am thankful for our commonalities.

Hate of Asian Americans and all Asians is on the rise. The shrinking of the white male majority in America, the history of WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the loss of jobs and industries to Asia, especially China, and the many misconceptions about Asians, have blighted the wonderful assets many Asians have brought to America and the world.

A tiny sampling of those accomplishments: 

Mya Lin, the architect of The Vietnam Memorial Monument. Amy Tan, the writer. Chien-Shiung Wu, the nuclear physicist … and so many others. Can we forget the laborers who constructed the transcontinental railroad, many of whom were Asian? Athletic stars such as the NBA’s Jeremy Lin, and linebacker and coach Eugene Chung. …Or quarterback Kyle Murray, whose mother is half Korean and whose father is African-American (Love it; wow!) Finally, my children’s and grandchildren’s friends, who are ethnically much more diverse than my generation’s cohort. I Think of bonsai and the art of flower arranging, ikebana. Forms I hope to learn to enhance my floral arrangement skills. The most exquisite scarves I have ever worn are shiboru, a three dimensional form of folding, stitching, and pleating, all in silk, created by Suziki Kanezo of Japan. These shiboru drape over my shoulders .. under my long hair … so gracefully. 


Shame dominates as the most hope and life- killing force on earth. 

For many, death is better than enduring shame. 

Ask me and ask my father.

For all of us, shame comes from stigma. 

My Dad did not seek mental health care and neither do many people of Asian descent. Suicide of young people, ages 12-24 is greatest in Asian-Americans!  Stigma stems from the fear of being identified as disabled. Societal norms and values place a premium on our ability and actual performance towards taking care of one’s own family  and in contributing to our communities.

I do not believe there are many differences here in the things that shamed my father, Asian Americans and myself. For myself, I feared I would not be able to care for our two children and be a loving wife to my husband Jim. All those fears were not in evidence, but they all overshadowed my thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  For my father, I do not know his shames, although once committed to a mental health hospital, and with the possible loss of the family farm just one serious consequence of this, I believe he endured shame as a life sentence. He never discussed his feelings, but lived through many serious suicidal depressions and suicide attempts. 

Asian Americans live with the stereotype as the model minority. The myth goes like this: Asian Americians are fully-integrated, intelligent, industrious, and have overcome racial bias. Individual Asian people feel pressure to meet these standards and expectations.

 The pressure to live up to the image as a model Asian American results in the denial of any  letdowns, failures, pain and loss … all of which we all experience or will experience. The drive for perfection can kill. I know the drive for perfection too well, and the toll it takes on family and on oneself. Thinking perfection will cure everything … can be fatal.  

Talking about mental illness/mental health challenges is taboo for most Asian Americans.. As it was in the family into which I was born and was raised.

Let us all be more than tolerant to one another. Let us begin to trust, admire and appreciate each person.

Let us share a spirit of gentleness and work toward a better society.  Many times song expresses what we have not ventured to put into conversation:

 “ Tale as old as time, true as it can be, barely even friends, then somebody bends unexpectedly. Just a little change, small to say the least. Both a little scared, neither one prepared …  Tale as old as time.”

Thank you kindly,

Gail Louise

(Lyrics by Alan Menken 1991)