Model Minority and Mental Health (from an Asian American therapist)

By Kim Park

You may be familiar with the term, model minority, it is positive and full of “respectful” traits (hardworking, humble, intelligent, obedient, submissive). The model minority stereotype has been around since the 20th century, which primarily focused on Chinese and Japanese Americans, who were forced to integrate. The term for assimilation at the time was Americanize. The concept became publicized through media outlets during World War II, with newspaper headlines highlighting the ever so gentle and humble servants. This concept was not asking for Asian Americans to solely fit in and immerse themselves into white society, but they were being asked to disregard their cultural traditions. By being asked to void their histories and experiences, they were ultimately placed in positions of departing with what made them unique and valued, all in the pressure of gaining respect from larger society. While this stereotype was and continues to be known as a “positive” suit, it is a box that many cannot obtain or sustain. The reasons behind the inability to sustain is not only due to a larger societal expectation (and misconception), but familial and individual pressures (this is where we consider the term stereotype threat).

Let’s address the microaggressions. I’m sorry to say, but we are not all born with musical talents that span across every instrumental group, nor have we gained natural mathematical abilities, and we surely have not reached the top of the food chain. One of the false beliefs about Asian Americans is their ability to become wealthy and obtain a status that not many minority groups can reach. What about being hardworking? We are and so are many other individuals. In the 2022 STAATUS index report (The Asian American Foundation), it highlighted very little changes in the occupational realm, with all domains lower or same, as previously reported. Occupational status is not the only area for microaggressions. It can be delivered in subtle ways, making what you may believe are “good” compliments, when in fact, they are oppressive and insulting. The concept of the model minority brings negative connotations from peers (in and out of the AAPI community), work environments, social groups, and from within ourselves.

There is a poor mistreatment of individuals, who do not check off the criteria that is or was expected – don’t talk back, don’t set healthy boundaries, don’t disagree, and don’t be assertive. All of which are detrimental to one’s psychological well-being. This leads into the brief mention of seeking and utilizing mental health resources. There are a few areas that Asian Americans do not wander into and one is seeing a therapist. Traditionally, Asian Americans gravitate to family and community, where they can lean on each other for support. It’s not surprising that the fear of stigma and shame are very real; it would be admitting to the idea of “I need help and can’t do it alone.” It can also be misinterpreted as, “My supports are not enough” or, “I’m not enough.” In addition, not many mental health agencies have Asian providers, and as a whole, less than 10% identify as Asian American.

As an Asian American therapist, it has been very important to bridge the gap in mental health treatment. One of the alarming statistics in our community is the high rate of suicides amongst AAPI young adults. These statistics are not one dimensional, they do encompass a varied garden of dilemmas and conflicts. However, while these numbers are heartbreaking to know of, there is little done on a macro and micro level, to address the gaps in treatment. With the rise of violence, aggression, and racism against Asian Americans, there have been several providers, who have come forth to create specialized directories and resources. These outlets can provide a safe haven for those, who would like to seek help. While it may be slow to fruition, it has brought to light our community’s needs and discrepancies (western traditional versus cultural sensitive modalities). Let’s continue to refuse being overlooked, prioritize our needs, and identify what matters in our lives; individually and collectively.

In a non-traditional conclusion, I leave readers with this quote from Margaret Cho –“Sometimes when we are generous in small, barely detectable ways it can change someone else’s life forever.”

Therapist note: It is important to highlight the other downside to stereotyping – it disregards and minimizes other groups. Others who are just as valuable and important.

Resources:

Income Inequality in the U.S. Is Rising Most Rapidly Among Asians | Pew Research Center

STAATUS Index 2022 (taaf.org)

Why Asian Americans Don’t Seek Help for Mental Illness | McLean Hospital

As AAPIs, We Need Therapists Who Look Like Us | Mental Health America (mhanational.org)

LCWK1. Deaths, percent of total deaths, and death rates for the 15 leading causes of death in 5-year age groups, by race and sex: United States, 2017 (cdc.gov)

Home – Asian Mental Health Collective (asianmhc.org)

Instagram: @asiansformentalhealth